As we move into the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s attention has turned toward fall, which brings with it a crucial question: Are schools reopening? Many school districts across the country are still planning to reopen with face-to-face learning this fall in one way or another. And on July 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidance emphasizing “the importance of reopening America’s schools this fall.” The organization also released a “back to school decision making tool” for parents to weigh the pros and cons of in-person vs. at-home learning, along with how much they need school-based services like meals and aftercare.
That said, alarming metrics loom large. We’re nearing 150,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. Cases are on the rise in many parts of the country, and it seems likely that we’ll eventually hit 100,000 new confirmed cases per day.
It’s no wonder that amid these growing numbers, the idea of reopening schools has sparked a wave of anxiety among parents, educators, and students. Even rock stars have weighed in with opinions. To be clear: There are no great options here. With no ideal course of action, how can schools resume in the safest manner possible? Right now, it seems there are more questions than answers. For some insight, SELF spoke with four experts to understand the current recommendations for school reopening, benefits and risks of schools, and how to do it as safely as possible: Enriqueta Bond, Ph.D., partner at QE Philanthropic Advisors, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in education, among other areas; Phyllis Meadows, M.S.N., Ph.D., R.N., senior fellow with the Kresge Foundation; Meghan May, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Infectious Disease at the University of New England College of Medicine; and Ellie Murray, Sc.D., assistant professor of Epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. Bond and Meadows recently served as coauthors on a National Academy of Science (NAS) report examining school reopening.
What are the current recommendations for reopening schools this fall?
Major public health organizations like the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and World Health Organization (WHO) have released guidance for schools trying to decide whether to reopen. But, unlike the White House and CDC’s guidelines for a phased national reopening, these school reopening guidelines don’t offer recommendations on when to reopen schools based on achieving specific public health metrics. Many advisory groups have declined to provide concrete recommendations for this. It’s messy and there’s no clear one-size-fits-all advice. Instead, these organizations’ guidelines generally offer suggestions for things to consider when making the choice to reopen schools, like how to evaluate a school’s ability to implement COVID-19 prevention measures. Ultimately, the decision about whether and how to reopen has been left to individual school districts and schools.
This has led to a variety of situations, even in different school districts that are experiencing the same COVID-19 caseload. Some are planning on a return to semi-normal, with children in classes five days per week and limited public health interventions. Others are using a hybrid model, with some days in class and some days online. Some have chosen to be fully online or at least begin the school year that way. Some will require masks; some have arranged for smaller class sizes; some are planning for only younger children to return to school buildings while older students learn from home. Nothing is universal except confusion.
What are the benefits of reopening schools for in-person learning?
Meadows notes a number of advantages to returning to a physical classroom. “In-person instruction for younger students is important for advancing learning and social and emotional development, which are critical in the early years,” she tells SELF. “In grades K-3, children are still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention.” Kids at this age often struggle with distance learning, Meadows explains, adding that the NAS committee “found that young children, in particular, are most at risk by not having in-person learning and may suffer long-term academic consequences if they fall behind.” That’s why the NAS report Meadows coauthored recommends that school districts prioritize getting kindergarten through fifth-grade students back in school, along with special needs students who would benefit most from in-person learning.
The AAP report, which strongly recommends schools reopening for in-person instruction in the fall with significant safety measures in place, highlights other advantages beyond academics and interpersonal development: “safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity.” Schools also are essential for trying to address racial and social inequities, the report notes—some of which the pandemic and distance learning have exacerbated. Online learning is difficult for many children, and not every family has equal access to reliable technology. There is considerable and valid concern that additional months of virtual schooling will leave some children behind academically; my 2020 high school graduate did not find it particularly useful.
What’s more, many parents simply can’t stay at home with their children due to job responsibilities, especially single parents and those who are essential workers. Then there are the many parents who are newly working from home while also looking after their kids and finding it exceedingly difficult to balance it all.
Clearly, there are many reasons to advocate for a return to in-person schooling in the fall. But what about the flip side?
What are the downsides to schools reopening?
Both May and Murray are skeptical that schools can safely reopen for the upcoming academic year. “In March, we closed schools based on case counts that were much lower than what we’re seeing today,” Murray says. “If we cannot bring the outbreak under control in the next month, I do not think it will be safe to reopen schools.”
Unfortunately, an enormous limitation to schools reopening is that we’re still learning about this virus as we go. We can examine what has happened in other countries that have done some type of school reopening, but those results have been mixed. Schools in Israel re-closed after mounting cases related to school attendance; a similar phenomenon happened in South Korea upon schools reopening. Though some other countries have done better, like Finland, their disease incidence has always been much lower than ours is currently. As the United States is a global leader in COVID-19 cases, it’s difficult to think that we can safely reopen in most areas given our recent upward trajectory in diagnoses. This is especially true now that more worrisome data is emerging about how COVID-19 can affect children and teenagers.
Early on in the pandemic, there was minimal evidence of COVID-19 infections in children and adolescents. It felt like a relief in the face of so much frightening news about the virus. But more recent research has shown that kids and teens can be infected, can experience severe COVID-19 symptoms, and can die from the disease. Serious COVID-19 outcomes are less common in children and adolescents than they are for adults, especially older adults, but they’re still possibilities. This means we need to tread very carefully with schools reopening.
Experts also originally thought that children were less likely to transmit the virus to others than adults were. However, a new study in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal examined nearly 65,000 new coronavirus patients and their contacts and found that children (especially kids aged 10-19) can transmit the virus to household contacts. (Kids also may be less likely to show symptoms than adults.) This confirms that children returning to school can put their entire households at risk of infection. May expressed concern about a hypothetical scenario where a child brings home the virus from school and infects a relative. “What if the loved one died, or had long-term complications? The potential for childhood trauma is enormous here,” she says.
We, of course, also have to consider the adults working within the school system and the fact that many of them are vulnerable to serious health outcomes from COVID-19 infection. A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost a quarter of teachers—approximately 1.5 million people—had one or more risk factors that put them at high risk of complications from COVID-19. That’s the same percentage of total U.S. employees the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates is at greater risk of COVID-19 complications, but the report explains that teachers and other school staffers have the additional obstacle of schools often being so crowded. (As Murray notes, it’s not just teachers we need to worry about. We also need to think of school staffers like janitors, bus drivers, administrative staff, and those who work in cafeterias to provide kids with food.)
Indeed, Bond cautions that the NAS report says reopening schools poses health risks to teachers and staff and to family members of students. “It will be impossible for schools to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 entirely,” she says. Keeping schools closed would provide the best protection for students and school staff.
So, what should schools do?
In an ideal world, schools would be able to open in the fall after consulting with public health experts and implementing as many safety measures as possible. “Our report emphasizes the importance of schools partnering with public health agencies who will have the expertise to provide guidance on these issues and help their communities plan for these possibilities,” Meadows says.
To that end, the NAS report includes a number of suggestions for making in-person instruction as safe as possible this fall: smaller class sizes, masks, distancing, providing hand sanitizer, and working with public health experts to design safety plans for school districts. Unfortunately, a number of challenges stand in the way of turning these recommendations into reality.
First, many public health agencies are already over-stretched with other COVID-19 responsibilities. Some locales—such as those in rural areas—may not have any local public health responders they can rely on for advice on a number of unanswered questions: Should testing be a part of reopening? What happens if students or teachers refuse to wear masks or otherwise disagree with mitigation efforts? When should schools re-close and move to online-only instruction if cases spike in an area?
Let’s say every school could somehow get insight from local public health agencies. Any necessary safety interventions would still require funding for supplies, additional staffing, and possibly even building renovations or renting additional space. “We recommend that state and federal funding should be provided to schools to help them cover the cost of things like masks, hand sanitizer, and other changes,” Meadows says. While the Trump administration has been clear that they want schools to reopen in-person, additional funds to support reopening have not yet been supplied, though the Washington Post reported that aid packages for this are potentially in motion. Without that kind of funding, many experts are concerned that schools won’t be able to implement these safety measures. May says that doing so “is somewhat doubtful” unless schools get some kind of financial aid.
Even with funding for these safety measures, teachers and other school staffers would still have unaddressed concerns. Many worry that a return to the classroom won’t provide the same environment they once had and that their ability to interact with their students may actually be better over Zoom than in a masked, physically distant classroom. Some have expressed worries that their health and well-being may be sacrificed to put students back in schools, particularly without any assurance that they would still be paid if they need to leave for illness or to quarantine upon exposure to the virus. One teacher noted in the New York Times that asking teachers to work during the pandemic is “like asking me to take that bullet home to my own family.” On top of it all, teachers may lack childcare for their own kids since school reopenings aren’t uniform across districts.
Where does all of this leave us when it comes to schools reopening?
Probably as confused as ever. But here’s what we know needs to happen, at the very minimum, to even somewhat safely reopen schools this fall:
1. We need flexibility. Even schools that manage to successfully reopen may need to close if there is an outbreak in students or staff.
2. We need community buy-in for mitigation methods. Although there is no completely safe way to open schools again, reducing community spread of the virus will decrease the odds of a school-associated outbreak. Though not perfect, social distancing and face coverings like masks are the best methods we currently have to reduce transmission of the virus and keep everyone as safe as possible.
3. We need funding. Far too many of our schools are terribly underfunded even under normal circumstances. How can we possibly ask teachers to buy masks and hand sanitizer for their classrooms on top of everything else they are dealing with in a pandemic? How can we ask them to take unpaid leave if they need to quarantine? This can’t be yet another unfunded mandate that we add to the stack.
4. We need widespread and rapid testing and contact tracing. The infrastructure for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, two of our essential defenses against this disease, needs to be much more robust than it currently is. Delays in testing and contact tracing can result in people walking around without knowing they have the infection or have been exposed to someone who does—which can further spread this dangerous illness.
Is all of this a tall order? Yes. Can it happen in time for fall classes? I don’t know. Schools in some areas plan to begin instruction in early August—likely too soon to truly have all of their ducks in a row. “There are not many good options here, but I cannot overstate my worry about schools reopening without major modifications,” May says.
While I figure out what my own family is doing in the fall for my first grader’s schooling, I’ll watch a Hamilton COVID-19 parody for the 20th time as I waver between his school’s options, wishing we all had better guidance.
- A School Psychologist on How to Help Your Kids Cope Right Now
- How to Keep Your Home as Clean as Possible From Germs Right Now
- The Pandemic Isn’t Over. We Need to Act Accordingly.
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