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Arizona teacher testifies in-person classes place students into 'petri dish'

Imani Baucom, a second-grade English teacher at DC Bilingual Public Charter School, teaches her students remotely from her home in Bowie, Md., in May. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Imani Baucom, a second-grade English teacher at DC Bilingual Public Charter School, teaches her students remotely from her home in Bowie, Md., in May. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
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Aug. 6 (UPI) -- A coworker of an Arizona teacher who died after contracting COVID-19 said that returning to schools with in-person instruction will expose students, teachers and other staff to the virus in testimony before Congress on Thursday.

Appearing before the coronavirus subcommittee of the House oversight and reform committee, teacher Angela Skillings noted she has seen children spread pink eye, stomach flu and influenza in her classroom and fears the coronavirus can spread in the same manner.

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"We put them in seclusion, we took them out of the classroom in March. They have been sheltered at least in our community," Skillings said, referring to low numbers of children who have contracted COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. "To me, we are forcing schools to open and that is going to put students back into the petri dish that we have in our classrooms."

Skillings is one of three teachers at the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District who contracted COVID-19 while teaching virtual summer school in Arizona. Skillings and fellow teacher Jena Martinez-Inzunza recovered from the virus but Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd died June 26 after testing positive for COVID-19 on June 13 and being placed on a ventilator a day later.

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During Thursday's hearing, Skillings said students have expressed concerns that she would die, which she described as "emotionally damning" for both students and staff.

"Together as a staff, we are worried about each other and about what can happen and we are not ready to lose another staff member," she said.

Robert W. Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools in Florida, said schools in the county had "no choice" but to open with online learning amid a recent surge in cases in the state.

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"That is the only way we can educate our students, while still keeping them, their teachers and all employees healthy and safe," he said. "We simply cannot risk exposing our students and staff until the coronavirus is under control."

Runcie added that local positivity test rates remain above 10%, citing expert recommendations that schools should not reopen until rates are between 3% and 5% over a rolling two-week average.

"We will not compromise the health and safety of our students, teachers and staff. That's our highest priority. Period," he said.

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Chairman Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., reiterated his skepticism and called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration to rescind threats to cut funding from schools that choose to instead open with online-only instruction.

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"Getting our kids back to school is vitally important, but disregarding local, state and federal public health guidance could put children, teachers and families at risk of infection and death from the coronavirus," Clyburn previously wrote in a letter to DeVos. "I am particularly concerned that, contrary to the laws passed by Congress, you have threatened to cut off federal funds from schools that do not accede your potentially dangerous demands."

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, condemned the national response, asserting that the challenges facing school reopenings could have been avoided if protocols to prevent the spread of the virus had been followed.

"If we had done what was necessary in the spring, wearing masks, socially distancing, testing at scale, contact tracing, we could have brought students back in the summer to recoup that lost learning time," he said. "If we had valued our students and teachers more than our bars and restaurants, we'd be sitting here today with a far better chance at more districts safely reopening."

He also said that lack of funding from Congress has "both exposed and unfortunately exacerbated" equity gaps within communities and called on lawmakers to deploy $200 billion in funding to states and districts for or low income schools and students experiencing homelessness, disabilities and English language learners.

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Dan Lips, visiting fellow for education policy with the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, testified that time out of school results in months of lost learning which is most acute for low-income students.

"The bottom line is that prolonged school closures will create a large achievement gap for a generation of American children," he said.

Ranking member Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., pushed for schools to reopen throughout the country, including in hotspots, citing low rates of infection and deaths among people under 18 years old.

"The question is not 'Should we reopen?' The question really is why haven't we started planning more widespread to reopen safely," he said.

President Donald Trump was criticized on Wednesday for a tweet that said children are "almost immune" to COVID-19 -- something he was flagged for online and which Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said is patently false.

"Children do get infected. We know that. So, therefore, they are not immune," Fauci told the coronavirus subcommittee last week.

Dr. Caitlan Rivers of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security noted that while the numbers of deaths and infections among children are low, they are still affected by the virus and that teachers, staff and family members who are at high risk from the virus face risk of contracting it from their children.

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"Schools are not attended only by children, they are also workplaces for teachers and staff who may be at higher risk for severe illness because of their age, and children return home to family members, many of whom may be older adults or have underlying health conditions," she said.

Trump and his administration have been pushing schools to reopen with in-person instruction and even threatened to cut funding to schools that do not.

Many school districts in the United States -- including some in California, Florida, Virginia and most recently Chicago -- have announced plans to begin the school year with online distance learning. Others have reopened with in-person classes.

Last week, the American Federation of Teachers -- the second-largest U.S. teachers union -- said it will strike in districts that open where it's unsafe for schools to resume, "as a last resort" to protect health.

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