What the Botched School Reopenings Taught Us, and How to Do It Better

A classroom at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Boston, MA on August 21, 2020. Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images

After spring lockdowns, several state and local decision-makers went against the advice of health experts and reopened bars, gyms, and other risky indoor gathering places too quickly and fully, before getting Covid-19 spread under control. Infections surged, obliterating the gains made in lockdown and rendering school reopenings risky.

Already some schools are repeating the mistakes, reopening fully before the Covid calculations warrant and being forced to close within days. Yet many others have already decided to start classes online only. The bungled pandemic response has health experts and K-12 educators boiling mad as they scramble to figure out whether and how to get kids back in classrooms, on tighter-than-ever budgets, and sans any national strategy other than an unenforceable reopen mandate from the president and the education secretary.

“Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are issuing demands, but they have not given us one thin dime,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. “They left us to figure it out on our own.”

Meanwhile, scientists say schools could be petri dishes for Covid-19 outbreaks if mitigation efforts aren’t comprehensive and routine, endangering children, their families, and school staff. Nearly 30% of K-12 teachers are 50 or older, at higher risk for severe Covid-19 outcomes.

Health experts recommend fully opening classrooms only if the local area is in the “green zone” […], having fewer than one daily new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people.

Georgia was among the first states to experiment with full reopenings. A photo of a crowded hall with few masked students in an Atlanta district went viral. And just a week after opening, the district quarantined 925 students and staff after dozens of positive Covid-19 tests. By mid-August, three Georgia high schools were closed. In Florida, hundreds of infections among students and employees have been linked to K-12 schools and universities. On August 25, the state announced 9,000 total new infections in the state among children in the first 15 days after schools opened, though it’s unclear how many of these are directly related to schools.

As of August 26, 39 of the 50 largest K-12 school districts in the country have decided on remote learning only, according to Education Week. Regardless of which approach they plan to take, about one-third of all districts surveyed have target start dates in September, so much of whatever might happen remains to be seen.

“We all want open schools with in-person instruction — when it’s safe,” García says. “If we do this wrong, students die. Or their teachers die.”

Reopening is possible, but…

Health experts are similarly frustrated by the summer of squandered opportunity. But they say it is possible to safely reopen schools where the coronavirus transmission rates are low, so long as extensive precautions are taken.

“But honestly, what ‘low’ means is really an unknown,” says Eleanor Murray, ScD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

Health experts recommend fully opening classrooms only if the local area is in the “green zone” on a risk chart developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute, having fewer than one daily new Covid-19 case per 100,000 people. Where daily new infections are below 25 per 100,000 people, reopenings are suggested only on a prioritized basis, starting with kids up to grade five.

Another recommended threshold: Less than 5% “test positive rate” for new infections in the community.

The challenge is especially in poorer school districts that often don’t have the space to even meet the basic six-foot distancing guideline, whereas schools in wealthier districts can co-opt sprawling athletic facilities and rooms normally dedicated to music, art, or other specific uses.

But these data are sometimes days or weeks old when reported, reflecting what was happening, not what is, Murray explains. Also, Covid-19 test results can be misleading because they typically reflect people who choose to be tested, not necessarily a representative slice of the population. If testing becomes more widespread and routine, positive rates may decline on paper but not reflect any actual decline.

Instead of asking how schools can reopen safely, the question should be what needs to be shut down to keep community spread as low as possible in order to open schools safely, Murray says. Other health experts agree, saying bars and gyms and any large indoor gatherings are all ripe for causing outbreaks that can ripple through a community.

“That’s not a discussion very many places seem willing to have,” Murray notes, echoing the frustration of many scientists and educators.

The elements of safe reopenings

The CDC offers useful guidelines for reopening, García says. She cautions, however, that they’ve been watered down by the White House to appear as suggestions rather than firm guidelines, but she says they must all be followed. “It’s medical science,” she says. “We don’t get to ignore medical science.”

The CDC list is long. Among the most critical preventive measures:

  • Low community transmission
  • Physical distancing at school and in buses
  • Cloth face coverings, hand-washing
  • Routine cleaning and disinfecting
  • Keeping small groups together (called cohorting, or pods) to limit spread when infections occur

Perhaps the most daunting aspect to all this is an utter lack of resources. The challenge is especially in poorer school districts that often don’t have the space to even meet the basic six-foot distancing guideline, whereas schools in wealthier districts can co-opt sprawling athletic facilities and rooms normally dedicated to music, art, or other specific uses. Schools in poorer districts typically don’t have a school nurse or librarian or counselors, all of whom can pitch in at wealthier schools.

Scientists who study Covid-19 transmission advise increasing ventilation in classrooms by opening windows, upgrading air filters, or adding portable air purifiers to classrooms. García emphasizes, above all, having a plan not just for prevention but for how to deal with infections.

Preparing for inevitable infections

School officials need to plan not just for opening, but what they’ll do when the all-but-inevitable infections happen. Murray, the Boston University epidemiologist, says schools need to address at least these three questions, and share their plan with parents:

  • How are quarantines managed, and who all is quarantined, if a student tests positive?
  • If someone in a student’s home tests positive, does that trigger quarantines of other students?
  • How many student or staff infections will trigger a school closure?

Katharine Strunk, professor of education policy and economics at Michigan State University, says one of her biggest concerns is disruption ahead caused by likely fits and starts, which she says should also be planned for in advance.

“There is a strong chance that students will come back and then be asked to go home again for a week or two or more, and then the cycle begins again,” she says. “There is a lot of research that suggests that students do well with clear schedules and expectations.” Educators should create plans that help students move back and forth between in-class and remote learning “as seamlessly as possible.”

Finally, there’s one more thing for teachers and parents to worry about and plan for…

The “Covid slide”

Whether in classrooms or online, kids will be returning to school this year less prepared than normal, given the lack of learning caused by online-only classes during the spring lockdowns.

It’s called the “Covid slide,” says Pamela Davis-Kean, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “We’re predicting, especially with math, a rather large hit,” she says. Existing achievement gaps for poorer and minority students will likely be magnified, she says, as kids with parents of greater means will continue to do well or even better than normal if they have tutors or other individualized instruction. Student assessments will be needed so teachers know the starting points.

“Students will return to classrooms in dramatically different places, both in terms of their academic preparedness for grade-level work and their mental and socioemotional readiness to learn,” Strunk says. “This will make returning to learn challenging for both teachers and their students.”

Who comes first?

For schools still aiming for in-class instruction, there’s a big wildcard: Schools shut down in the spring before the pandemic had gained serious national steam, so kids were largely sequestered from the get-go. A false sense of security developed — a feeling that children didn’t catch or transmit the coronavirus.

They definitely do, and yet experts still don’t know exactly to what degree. A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics finds total Covid-19 infections among children doubled between July 9 and August 13 — before most schools had reopened. The degree to which children transmit the virus is thought to be on a graduated scale, with high schoolers closer to adults and younger and younger children less and less so, but the details remain in question.

The apparent lower risk for transmission among the youngest kids, plus the need to free up their parents, are two of at least three reasons experts suggest focusing first on restarting in-person classes for pre-K-3 up through around sixth grade.

The third reason: “Children in grades K-3 will likely benefit from in-person education more than older students,” says Strunk.

“In addition, students with special needs and who are English learners should be brought back into classrooms as soon as possible,” Strunk says in an email. “Districts and states should also focus on returning students first who are most at risk for slipping through the cracks in a remote system, including homeless students, students without access to broadband and electronic devices, and students who were already struggling in school.”

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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