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The proof is in the density

Johnson City Press • Apr 29, 2020 at 10:00 AM

As hard as the lockdown has been on students and parents, Gov. Bill Lee’s recommendation to keep school buildings closed through the end of the school year was the right thing to do.

Local districts and higher education institutions have followed that path while continuing to offer instruction remotely. Some have aptly labeled it “crisis schooling” rather than “homeschooling.”

While that situation has been less than ideal for instruction, it has been better than the alternative: rapid spread of the novel coronavirus among young people, who then in turn infect their older, more vulnerable relatives.

On Monday, though, with mere weeks left in the normal academic year, President Donald Trump urged the nation’s governors to seriously consider reopening schools.

That’s horrible advice.

The correlation between population density and the spread of the novel coronavirus is as clear as a school bell.

The nation’s urban centers have been the hotspots for COVID-19 infection. Nashville-Davidson County has a population density of 1,247.7 people per square mile (2010 Census data). Tennessee’s most populous county had recorded 2,383 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, nearly one-fourth of all cases in the state.

Here in Washington County, the population density is 377 people per square mile. Tuesday’s report indicated a total of 54 cases here. Meanwhile, remote Hancock County — with just 30.7 people per square mile — had yet to record its first case.

Little in society is more densely populated than a school. With a many as 35 students in a classroom and 2,000 in a school building, schools are breeding grounds for viral infections. Schools close in many places at the peak of flu season some years for that very reason.

Here in Tennessee, we have a glaring example of how density factors into a highly contagious disease. Bledsoe County Correctional Complex southwest of Knoxville houses about 2,300 prisoners. As of this weekend, 576 had tested positive for COVID-19.

While schools are not a 24-7 situation like a state prison, students and teachers spend hours together in confined spaces five days per week.

Luckily for local families, most area schools were on spring break when Lee asked schools to close through the end of March, an order that was extended into April before schools were ultimately shuttered through the end of the semester on April 15.

On March 12 — eight days before Washington County reported its first case of the novel coronavirus — East Tennessee State University shut down its campus, and transitioned all 3,000 of its courses online. That meant 16,000 people were not rubbing elbows on the university’s campuses.

As Staff Writer Jonathan Roberts reported in Sunday’s edition, local health officials believe ETSU’s decision to shut down the campus early in the process was a major factor in keeping COVID-19 at bay in Northeast Tennessee.

“In congregated settings like universities, like ships with soldiers on them, like jails, these are the places where outbreaks almost always go crazy because they’re all living together, they are around each other a lot and there’s a lot of social interaction,” Dr. Jonathan Moorman, chief of ETSU’s infectious disease division, told Roberts. “Those are the places you really have to shut down if you really want to stop the spread.”

If that’s not common sense, we don't know what is.

Not only would reopening schools prove impractical at this late date, it could give the virus toeholds in the worst possible settings.

The lockdown likely will apply to many traditional summer activities, as well. At risk are summer camps, craft lessons, football practices, recreation leagues, band camps and other programs that gather young people in close proximity. Most spring and summer festivals already have been canceled. Johnson City will not open the Legion Street pool.

As sad as it is for kids, keeping them apart remains necessary until COVID-19 is well under control.

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