Minnetonka superintendent: Flu riskier than COVID-19 for students and families

    Minnetonka Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson said at an Aug. 6 school board meeting that there are "more risks to our students and our families from the flu than there are from the virus."

    The traditional flu poses more risks to students and families than COVID-19, Minnetonka Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson said during a Thursday evening meeting about the district’s reopening plans — a claim refuted by experts since the beginning of the pandemic.

    That comment and others made by Peterson Thursday night alarmed some parents and staff as the board approved a plan for hybrid learning — some distance learning, some in-school instruction — this fall. During the six-hour meeting, Peterson outlined strict safety measures the school will implement in hopes of preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

    But he said news outlets have overblown the risks of the virus, which has killed more than 150,000 Americans.

    “It feels like sometimes the media tends to emphasize those studies that scare people and increase concerns about the threat of the virus. The media has a mission to encourage people to stay away from each other and stay away from businesses and schools,” Peterson said. “There are probably more risks to our students and our families from the flu than there are from the virus.”

    Although older people have suffered the worst effects, by virtually any measure, COVID-19 seems to be worse than traditional influenza. The novel coronavirus is more contagious and more deadly, and symptoms tend to be more severe and unpredictable, experts say. Plus, vaccines are available for the flu, but not for COVID-19. 

    Minnetonka Public Schools didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Parent Jen Bezyak said that she didn’t have any issues with the district’s reopening plan but was concerned by Peterson’s “insensitive, dismissive and questionable commentary.” 

    “As a leader of a large district, it is very irresponsible to use misinformation to justify your decisions,” she said.

    Peterson seemed to suggest the spring school closures weren’t effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, since they didn’t stop students from interacting with others outside of school.

    Closing school buildings was “intended to keep school-age children from infecting grandma and grandpa,” he said. “How did that work? We still had thousands of grandmas and grandpas get it and get ill, and many passed away.”

    Students have suffered more from the school closures than from the coronavirus, Peterson said. They’re less likely to get seriously sick from COVID-19 and less likely to spread it to others, he said.

    Research shows that school-age children may become ill with the coronavirus less often than adults and experience milder symptoms if they do get sick, but evidence about their role in transmission isn’t conclusive.

    A recent study that found infected children carry at least as much of the virus in their systems as adults has further complicated our understanding of transmission from children. The findings don’t prove that kids spread it to others but should play a role in the discussion about reopening schools, experts say

    Peterson seemed to reference this study, saying, “I know there’s a recent new argument to the contrary, but that information is just unnerving. It’s not validated by officials.”

    The district will start the school year with hybrid learning. There will be a strict mask requirement for all students and staff, Peterson explained, as well as social distancing, frequent cleaning and other safety measures. Families can opt for distance learning and will be able to switch models each quarter if they change their minds, he said.

    “We need to open our schools with … complete safety for everyone who wants to be in school. Also, no students should be forced to come to school by the district. We have good choices for everyone,” he said.

    Earlier in the week, Bloomington school board member Beth Beebe was criticized for her comments at a school board meeting about COVID-19 treatments that are not backed by science. The treatments were recently referenced in a viral right-wing video that has since been banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for violating their policies about false information.

    “I’m not finding evidence for a lot of the fears that are out there,” Beebe said. “There are doctors who are treating patients for COVID-19 and are having success rates, they are treating them with azithromycin and zinc, and some other medications, but the media is not wanting you to hear that either, but it’s happening.”

    Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Superintendent Dennis Peterson’s name.

    Rilyn Eischens
    Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.