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Minnetonka superintendent under fire after comparing COVID-19 to flu

Superintendent Dennis Peterson made the comments during a school board meeting about the district's reopening plans.
Minnetonka Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson

Minnetonka Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson

Minnetonka Public Schools has approved a hybrid learning model to start the 2020-2021 school year, but not without controversial comments from its superintendent who said the flu presents more risks to students and families than COVID-19, a claim that's been refuted by experts since the pandemic started.

The Minnetonka School Board on Aug. 6 unanimously approved a hybrid learning plan, which was one of seven options presented to the board during its six-hour meeting.

Prior to presenting his recommended plan for learning this fall, Minnetonka Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson made a string of controversial comments (starting at about the 3-hour, 9-minute mark in the video above) when stressing the importance of students returning to school to learn and the safety measures that will be in place this school year.

"It feels like sometimes the media tends to emphasize those studies that scare people and increase concerns about the threat of the virus. Media has a mission to encourage people to stay away from each other and stay away from businesses and schools," Peterson said, without citing any evidence.

"Healthcare workers have been on the job throughout the closure and continue to be at work," he added. "Others in our economy are back to working with the public. There are probably more risks to our students and their families from the flu than there are from the virus."

Health experts have said for months that the novel coronavirus is more contagious and more deadly than influenza, and symptoms of the virus tend to be more severe and unpredictable.

While influenza in recent years has caused more deaths among children than COVID-19, the coronavirus is deadlier among adults, presenting a risk for those who work at schools and the students' wider families if there's an outbreak.

Furthermore, tests are still ongoing to find both a vaccine and to determine the most effective antiviral treatment for COVID-19, which has claimed more than 160,000 lives in the U.S. this year.

On the other hand, there are established antivirals and vaccines for influenza that can reduce the severity of the virus, albeit tens of thousands of Americans still die from it every flu season.

Nonetheless, Peterson suggested that the threat caused by the virus is being exaggerated, saying: "People have just gotten so scared about this, it's a legend now as to how dangerous this is when in fact with our situation it's not going to be that dangerous."

He made the above comment after mentioning the viral photo taken of a packed Georgia high school hallway. That school is now closed for a few days after nine COVID-19 cases were reported among students, CNN reports.

Peterson also questioned the closing of schools in the spring as the pandemic arrived in Minnesota, saying:

"COVID is spreading outside of schools. The closure in the spring was intended to keep school-age children from infecting grandma and grandpa, and vulnerable parents, and other family members. How did that work? We still had thousands of grandmas and grandpas get it, and get ill, and many passed away. The system failed to recognize that students who are not in school go to other places, and that others in our society were not careful about their interactions with other people. Family members, or students, got the virus from those other engagements, they passed it along to other citizens. We know for sure that no student got it from school because they are not in school."

Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been traced to numerous gatherings since Minnesota's stay-at-home order expired, including recent outbreaks traced to basketball and football practices and camps in Lewiston, Minnesota, and a funeral in Becker County.

Kristin Bausman, public health supervisor for Becker County Public Health, said of the latter incident: "We are seeing an increased level of community transmission in the state related to social gatherings and this, in turn, poses increased risks to our long-term care facilities, schools and workplaces."

Backlash from local residents

The superintendent's comments have gotten a lot of attention among parents in the Minnetonka School District and people outside the district, including a call for an ethics complaint from an elementary school teacher and demands that he resigns.

BMTN on Monday, Aug. 10, reached out to Minnetonka Public Schools for comment on the criticism Peterson has gotten and whether the district's stance is that the flu is riskier than COVID-19. 

Minnetonka schools spokesperson JacQui Getty responded with an email that was sent to parents Sunday from Peterson and the school board that detailed how they decided on the hybrid learning plan, but did not address the questions BMTN asked.

"We had received several questions from parents, especially high school parents, asking for that information following the superintendent’s presentation of the District’s recommended return to school plan," Getty said in an email.

The email said, in part: "Parents, thank you for your support and for trusting Minnetonka Schools with your child’s education. "We believe that the board-approved option will be successful with us all working together to make that happen. Our goal remains to provide excellence in student education while maximizing staff, student and family safety."

Peterson isn't the only public school official who has been criticized following comments made during reopening plan discussions. Earlier this month, Bloomington Public Schools board member Beth Beebe, as she argued for kids to return to in-person school this fall, cited treatments for COVID-19 featured in a viral video that was banned from social media sites, and are not recommended treatments according to various health bodies, including the CDC .

Greg Pulles, who is running for Minnesota Senate District 44 that includes Minnetonka, Plymouth and Woodland, has echoed similar comments. 

Minnetonka and other districts in the west metro, including Wayzata, will start the school year with a hybrid learning plan, while Minneapolis and St. Paul will start the year with distance learning. Here's a list of what other school districts in Minnesota are doing to start the school year. 

CDC: The more interaction children have, the higher the risk that COVID-19 spreads

According to Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) data on Aug 10, there have been 61,516 positive COVID-19 cases in Minnesota and 1,660 people have died from the virus. Among children age 0-5, there have been 1,391 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death and among kids 6-19 there have been 7,451 cases and zero deaths.

Meanwhile, older adults more at risk for serious complications caused by the coronavirus, health officials have said. In Minnesota, there have been 10,229 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,533 deaths among people age 60 and older, data show.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says children "do not appear to be at higher risk for COVID-19 than adults," citing the evidence that's currently available, but they can still get sick from the virus and spread the virus even if they're not showing symptoms, the CDC and Mayo Clinic say.

"An important guiding principle to remember is that the more people children interact with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. While children may be spending time with other people as they return to daycare or school settings, it is important to remember that exposure to additional children and adults outside of daycare or school should be managed to decrease risk," the CDC says.

A few preliminary studies from other countries suggest there may be less virus transmission among kids, especially younger kids, to adults and other kids, NPR said. A commentary in Pediatrics said that although the reports are "far from definitive," the early research shows school-based transmission of the virus could be a "manageable problem," especially among elementary school children who "appear to be at the lowest risk of infection."

"Schools will now be the experiment," Dr. Aaron Carroll, a pediatrician at Indiana School of Medicine, told NPR. "We're going to see a bunch of schools open with varying levels of control, and then we will see what happens."

Safety measures in Minnetonka

Minnetonka has offered child care during the school closure for essential workers, including healthcare workers, and the district had no cases of the virus during that time, Peterson touted.

Getty told BMTN on July 28, before the district made a decision on its reopening plans, that it is limited on what it can share regarding the health of students and staff, but if cases are reported the district will work with MDH to identify and contact those who could be at risk of the virus.

In July, Minnetonka schools began installing partitions at reception desks in schools, placed social distancing decals on floors in common-use areas and ordered masks, face shields and hand sanitizer for each building in preparation for reopening, Getty said. The district is also getting some temperature-taking scanners and adding air-purifying devices that remove pollutants.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus, Peterson said. Meanwhile, families can choose whether they want their child to learn via distance learning.

When asked if the district has enough teachers and staff if some needed to work from home for health reasons or would some students be forced to learn remotely, Peterson said:

"I don't think that's likely to happen. We can always hire more teachers if we have to. But that's presuming that all of the teachers who are not going to come to work have a legal reason to not be there. We don't want to deal with those things until we determine the individual situation but we believe we're going to be OK on staffing."

Peterson noted that an employer can require people to be at work unless they have a risk that is covered by state law, noting each school will have to work through situations to determine if a staff member is fearful or if it's a "legitimate situation."

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