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When and How Should Schools Reopen?

child taking online classes
Photo: August de Richelieu from Pexels

Nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic has been easy, but one of the hardest parts has been the closure of schools. With kids at home, many parents aren’t able to work. Others are working full-time jobs while also trying to be full-time teachers and babysitters. It’s not easy for the kids, either. Even for students that are fortunate enough to have access to iPads, Wi-Fi, and online lessons, education through a screen just isn’t as enriching as learning in-person. And kids that don’t have access to those technologies are falling even further behind.

For these reasons and more, many families are pushing to reopen schools in the fall, even though the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. is going up, not down. How can school districts and families determine when it is safe enough to send kids back to school, and what can schools do to prevent coronavirus from spreading? We talked to two Earth Institute scholars — Jeffrey Shaman, who studies infectious disease transmission at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society and the Mailman School of Public Health, and Irwin Redlener, a physician and founding director of Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness — to explore these questions.

What are the risks of sending kids back to school?

Preliminary studies earlier this year suggested that children are less likely to contract or spread COVID-19. However, evidence is building that this may not be entirely accurate. A large study in South Korea recently found that kids aged 10-18 were just as capable as adults in infecting other people, says Shaman. The verdict is still out on whether younger children are more or less likely to spread it.

“When you look at kids not having as much infection, you have to remember what’s been going on with them — they’ve been out of school, so their level of contact with people has been greatly reduced,” says Shaman. This makes it hard to know exactly what role kids play in spreading the disease.

Sending children back to school means giving the virus more chances to spread between households. And although children are less likely to suffer severe symptoms, they could spread it to more vulnerable family members.

Some countries, such as Denmark, Germany, and Finland have reopened schools without creating additional surges in COVID-19. However, schools in other countries — Israel, China, and South Korea, for example — have had to close again because of infections in students and staff.

What are the risks of keeping kids home?

“It’s very important that you have children in school and given the time to learn, socialize and develop emotionally,” said Shaman. “These are decisions that are waylaying children’s education, and that are disrupting parents’ ability to earn money and feed their families and house their families. Those are enormous public health issues as well.”

Redlener asserted that the harm caused by being out of school for long periods of time are not just the problems of this year and next — they could put a child’s entire future at risk. If a child is currently struggling to read at their grade level in third grade, they’re going to have a hard time catching up, and therefore will be less likely to succeed in eighth grade, says Redlener. They’ll be less likely to graduate high school. They’ll have fewer economic opportunities, and when they have their own children, their children will be more likely to live in poverty.

“The impact of missing school for this long is a generational problem,” said Redlener. “It’s a dangerous time bomb for society. Even if COVID disappeared in a year, which is not likely to happen, those children who have missed out on the trajectory are going to be facing a lifetime of burden from that deficiency.”

These concerns are especially relevant for kids who are already struggling academically, and kids from underprivileged backgrounds who may not have internet access or someone at home who is able to mentor them.

This online discussion hosted by the Earth Institute’s Initiative on Communications and Sustainability explores how officials, educators and families can balance the need to resume effective learning with the urgent need to safeguard personal and public health.

The challenges of reopening schools

Shaman says that schools cannot safely go back to “normal” until we’ve got the pandemic under control. That requires pharmaceutical interventions, treatments, vaccines, and/or the development of herd immunity — developments that likely won’t happen anytime soon.

The challenge that schools are facing in the meantime is how to get as many kids back in school as possible, while also dramatically lowering the density of students in the classrooms and shared spaces. Striking a balance between these two competing demands will look different for different school districts. Some strategies include: limiting class sizes; creating “bubbles” of students and teachers that only interact within their own group; and alternating days or weeks when students are in the classroom. Another idea is to prioritize getting the youngest kids back in school, since they are harder to teach online, require more supervision, and may be less contagious.

While school districts formulate these plans, they have to ask themselves and their community a series of difficult questions. What’s an acceptable level of infection rates? Which strategies are best for each community, and is there some critical level at which it’s too dangerous to implement them? Which students do you prioritize — kids with special needs, and those who have no electronic access? How do you protect your teachers? Do you have the money to implement these changes? What do you do if there’s an outbreak within the school? And the list goes on.

“You’re left with a situation that inevitably is going to leave many people unhappy,” says Shaman.

The bottom line is, there is no one-size-fits-all-solution when it comes to schools reopening. The decisions will depend on the choices of families, teachers, school districts, and the infection rates in the surrounding community. Shaman foresees a patchwork of different policies, with some schools reopening at limited capacity in September, relying on differing strategies, while other schools will remain virtual-only.

Science-based solutions

In a recent report that Shaman co-authored, he and colleagues used models to explore how different levels of reopening could affect infection rates in New York City. They found that capping school capacity at 50 percent during Phase Four would cut the projected number of infections between 10 and 40 percent compared to a scenario in which schools fully reopen. On the other hand, allowing schools to reopen at 100 percent capacity, but limiting other businesses to 25 percent, could cut the number of infections by 6 to 33 percent.

Their data also revealed the importance of being prepared to reinstate strict social distancing guidelines and shut downs again if COVID-19 hospitalizations get too high. They found that these “re-PAUSEs” could reduce COVID-related infections, hospitalizations, and deaths by 16 to 49 percent compared to no rollback.

“We showed that keeping all industries, including schools at 50 percent capacity, plus universal mask-wearing, as well as a further reduction in transmission from testing and contact tracing and social distancing, the city might be able to keep transmission at relatively low levels through the end of May 2021 with minimal time on re-PAUSE,” noted lead researcher Wan Yang assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School.

The report was not peer-reviewed, but it shows one possible set of future scenarios for New York City. School districts in other areas could also use models to envision what may happen as more people to mix together, the seasons change, and the number of cases in the community changes, in order to better understand the potential consequences of reopening under different scenarios. Even better, Shaman says, would be for school districts to use multiple models and see how well the results agree.

“And then you can say, if I trust these models enough, what is the threshold at which I’m not going to be comfortable having kids in school?” he added.

It’s important that schools rely on as much evidence as possible when making these decisions. “If we have people who are going to write their own reality and not use a science- or evidence-based approach, we’re going to have a problem,” he says.

So, what should schools do?

“A good outcome to me is that we find solutions and we’re able to deliver education as best we can, and we don’t see major flare-ups because of the controls that we put in place,” says Shaman. “A bad situation would be that we spawn second and third waves as schools begin to reopen. And, unfortunately, that bad outcome is a very real possibility. And we are having to confront it and we’re having to be very cautious. We have to be willing to shut everything down again.”

Redlener, though, is concerned that schools’ strategies of only sending children to school one or two days a week will leave many children behind.

“It is possible to fully reopen schools without putting kids and teachers at excess risk, and still allow for small classrooms and abide by guidelines for keeping people safe,” he says. “It’s doable, it just costs money.”

Since state and local budgets are being slashed as a result of the pandemic, Redlener has hopes of enlisting some of New York City’s wealthiest citizens into a public-private partnership that would provide resources to safely send all kids back to school. “There are plenty of people in New York who could put up a couple of billion dollars to create extra classrooms so that no classroom would have more than 10 kids in it.”

Redlener has sent this proposal to the State Department of Health and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. It is too early to know whether it will be put into action, but Redlener thinks we must try everything we can to get kids back in school as soon as possible.

“I just dread the idea that some children are going to be set so far behind educationally, they won’t be able to catch up, no matter what we do later,” he says.

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