If you want to reopen schools, conquer COVID-19 virus first (UPDATE)
Schools can’t reopen for a “normal” school day until the U.S. has a better handle on the transmission of the novel coronavirus.
It’s a broken record by this time, but public health experts have made it clear that the infection rate must be lowered before schools can reopen. The latest message is from U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, delivering his message on several regular morning TV shows, even on (gasp) Fox News. As Dr. Adams said on CBS This Morning, as reported by CNN:
What I want people to know is the biggest determinant of whether or not we can go back to school actually has little to nothing to do with the actual schools — it’s your background transmission rate. And it’s why we’ve told people constantly that if we want to get back to school, to worship, to regular life — folks need to wear face coverings, folks need to practice social distancing. Those public health measures are actually what’s going to lower the transmission rate.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against opening schools without precautions and have developed general guidelines for schools, which Donald Trump insists are “too expensive.” Vice President Mike Pence downplayed the CDC guidelines, saying they shouldn’t be used as a “barrier” to students returning to classrooms.
It’s only a matter of weeks before many schools have to make final decisions on how to hold classes for the fall session: in person, remotely, or with some kind of hybrid combination. Many of the largest school districts in the country, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, with more than 600,000 students, won’t start in-person classes this fall. Many districts in major cities have postponed the start of classes, hoping that COVID-19 numbers will drop before they must make a definite decision. This CNN roundup describes the state of school starting plans across the country, even as some cities are going against state directives.
Of course, Trump is threatening to withhold federal money from schools if they don’t reopen — an empty threat, as that decision is made by Congress, not the president.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and who has the trust of 65% of the American people about coronavirus (as opposed to only 30% who trust Trump) has been cautious all along on whether schools should reopen. Dr. Fauci said that while schools’ goal should be to reopen in the fall, the decision should be left up to local districts in areas where the virus is surging.
Instead of listening to Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, or GOP governors who are insisting that school reopen no matter what, local school districts and parents might learn more by paying attention to countries where schools are more hopeful about reopening this fall because the virus is more under control. According to a story in Science magazine:
When Science looked at reopening strategies from South Africa to Finland to Israel, some encouraging patterns emerged. Together, they suggest a combination of keeping student groups small and requiring masks and some social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe, and that younger children rarely spread the virus to one another or bring it home. But opening safely, experts agree, isn’t just about the adjustments a school makes. It’s also about how much virus is circulating in the community, which affects the likelihood that students and staff will bring COVID-19 into their classrooms.
TIME has a roundup on what some other countries are doing.
Certain countries have reduced class sizes and implemented social distancing measures and have not seen rises in new daily cases. American schools might also look to other countries for examples of how not to reopen when the academic year begins.
For instance, Denmark, a country with a low incidence of COVID-19 transmission because of an early lockdown, reopened schools in April. Children ages 2-12 are sectioned off into “bubbles” of no more than 12. These groups arrive at staggered times, eat lunch separately, and have their own zones in the playground. There is no face mask requirement (you try getting a young child to wear a mask all day), but all students are required to wash their hands every two hours. Desks are roughly six feet apart, all education material are cleaned twice a day, and when possible, classes are held outside. “Other countries who followed similar measures — such as Germany, Finland, and Norway — have also avoided significant spikes in the number of new COVID-19 cases,” TIME reports.
Other countries have taken a much stricter approach. In Korea, “schools have temperature checks at school entrances and require students to wear masks, socially distance and frequently wash their hands,” TIME says. “Some schools are having students come in on alternate days while others have adopted a hybrid in-class and online approach to lessons.”
On the other hand, after initially adopting the “bubble model,” Israel eventually dropped it and let children leave masks at home during a heat wave. But by June 3, “the Israeli government was forced to close down schools after 2,026 students, teachers and staff had tested positive for COVID-19,” TIME reports. In addition, more than 28,000 students were placed under quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus.
No U.S. school district wants that — to reopen just to close again after widespread virus transmission. And that doesn’t even address the likelihood of spreading the virus to older relatives at home, who will be more susceptible to a more serious case of COVID-19.
Illness for relatives is not the only issue. If a teacher gets sick, where will a substitute come from? Who would want to be a substitute teacher in a class where the virus is spreading?
Best to listen to the public health experts in the first place. “Like herd immunity with vaccines, the more individuals wear cloth face coverings in public places where they may be close together, the more the entire community is protected,” Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and two colleagues wrote in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Dr. Redfield went further in a JAMA Live webcast. “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control,” the CDC director said.
A new study in PLOS Medicine makes it simple with three basic rules: Wash your hands regularly, wear masks, and keep your social distance from each other. These three simple behaviors could stop most all of the COVID-19 pandemic, even without a vaccine or additional treatments, says a CNN story on the study.
You want kids to return to school? You want life to return to some semblance of normalcy? #WearADamnMask.
UPDATE: After first standing their ground, officials at the CDC caved to Trump’s demands and revised their standards to offer more leeway for schools to open. It turns out the the looser guidelines also were edited by the White House. The revised guidance stresses the importance of getting parents back to work and kids back in the classroom with few points about health. There is a brief mention that there could be exceptions for reopening schools in COVID-19 “hot spots,” which include parts of 33 states.
It’s only fair to point out that the school attended by Trump’s youngest son, Barron, will not fully reopen this fall.
A virtual town hall hosted by the National PTA was held in mid-July to discuss how and if schools could reopen safety. A Washington Post story listed 10 common-sense takeaways, such as staggered drop-off times, social distancing, the need for local control, etc.
Bottom line: Don’t except many schools to open in August or September.