Statistically, 15 Hempfield students attending the first day of school likely would have tested positive for COVID-19. Perhaps as many as 60. None of them were identified, because no one, so far as we know, actually was tested. Hempfield is not the only school district adopting a wait-and-see approach to public health. Without testing, how will our public schools prevent an outbreak?
In the Hempfield School District, most students have opted to attend in person, five days a week. This successful effort would seem to adhere to the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics to do everything possible to enable in-person learning for our children.
There are many good reasons to support our students returning to school in person. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof presented some of these rationales in an op-ed that appeared in the Sept. 6 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline (“Kids with few resources need to be in school”).
There also need to be appropriate safeguards. First among them, according to Kristof, is “aggressive testing.” However, Hempfield students are not being tested for COVID-19.
Fifteen positive cases is not a hypothetical scenario. Statistically, we know that some Hempfield students are carrying the virus. In recent LNP | LancasterOnline articles, Alex Geli reported that Franklin & Marshall College, Elizabethtown College, Millersville University and Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology all had positive cases of COVID-19.
While COVID-19 transmission rates are thought to be relatively low for young children, older children may transmit the virus at levels similar to adults, according to The New York Times. Furthermore, the infection rate among children in Pennsylvania has steadily increased since May, again according to the Times.
Some local schools — Conestoga Valley High School and Donegal Intermediate School — have already been forced to temporarily revert to remote learning after discovering COVID-19 cases. There is no reason to believe that the approximately 7,000 students in Hempfield School District are statistically different.
Based on the Elizabethtown College and Franklin & Marshall rates, there is a strong likelihood that 20 to 80 Hempfield students began the school year infected with COVID-19. Perhaps 20% to 25% of these students attend virtually or take classes fully online. The rest attend in person. Even the most conservative statistical estimate tells us that there were at least 15 infected students attending a Hempfield school in person on the first day. But without testing, we do not know who they are —and neither do they.
To continue in-person learning, our school districts need to implement COVID-19 testing. Both Franklin & Marshall College and Elizabethtown College conducted universal entry testing. Every student was tested for COVID-19 before being allowed on campus. New York City schools are preparing to implement mandatory coronavirus testing among 10% of students, staff and faculty every month. Hempfield School District conducted no COVID-19 testing among its students and has no plans for random testing while school is in session.
The longer we wait, the more likely an outbreak is to occur. Imagine spinning the “Wheel of Fortune” and hoping to avoid the large, bold, white letters “BANKRUPT.” You are very unlikely to hit “BANKRUPT” with only one spin. But our school districts are spinning the wheel again and again, every day.
With no safety measures in place, the virus spreads rapidly. Masks and social distancing will slow the rate of infection. However, anyone who observes how teens (and many adults) practice “social distancing” in Lancaster County should exercise a healthy skepticism that these measures will be sufficient.
To continue the analogy, imagine an increasingly perilous “Wheel of Fortune,” in which the number of “BANKRUPT” spaces steadily increases. With no measures in place to identify infected persons, there is only one — inevitable — outcome to this long-term gamble.
Franklin & Marshall College is also testing wastewater on a weekly basis to identify the presence of COVID-19 in dorms. If there is any doubt that the virus is present among our student populations in Lancaster, the school districts could test wastewater. Of course, we do not know with certainty that any Hempfield students are carrying COVID-19, because this school district is not testing any of its students or their wastewater.
Hempfield School District needs widespread coronavirus testing. I urge the district to implement, at the least, random testing among students and staff, as well as wastewater testing. If not, parents and students in Hempfield School District can just count down the days before an outbreak will occur.
Our children and our community deserve more care and protection. We can prevent an outbreak of COVID-19, but not by testing only our luck.
Darryl W. Stephens is a Hempfield School District parent.