Here's What Science Says About How Safe It Really Is to Reopen Schools in the Pandemic
Some schools are planning to open back up for in-person classes in the fall—but should they? Here's what experts have to say.
Around the country, parents are coming to terms with the idea of their children returning to school in the fall amid a pandemic or, in many cases, trying to decide whether or not to opt for remote learning. Some parents are even wondering if it makes more sense to transition to homeschooling to keep their families safe. With more than 3.8 million cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. and school districts deciding what's best for students based on local health data, it's hard to picture what, exactly, school will look like come fall. Desks spread six feet apart, students and staff in masks, and the real potential of kids on alternating schedules if they're able to get back into classrooms at all—the 2020-2021 school year is going to be like nothing we've seen before.
According to a new HuffPost/YouGov survey, only 19 percent of K-12 parents want school to fully reopen for students in the fall; 26 percent are open to a hybrid schedule, where kids would only be in schools part of the time, and 42 percent say schools should be completely closed or moved online.
Teachers—especially those that are immunocompromised or have underlying medical conditions—aren't any more excited at the thought of going back to classrooms full-time. In fact, some educators are preparing wills and goodbye letters as school plans come into place. Educators in Florida have even sued Gov. Ron DeSantis over his decision to fully reopen schools despite rising COVID-19 cases and teachers in Wisconsin are calling for schools to remain closed.
On one hand, parents are eager to have their children socialize, have genuine face time with teachers, and get back to "normal," but on the other hand, they're anxious about the possibility of exposing their family to COVID-19. Part of the problem? Continuously conflicting—and inconclusive—information on a very new disease.
First, we were told that children were less likely to get the coronavirus and that, in many cases, they may be asymptomatic carriers. Then, cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C)—the new disease with ties to COVID-19—began popping up. Now we're hearing about the 85 infants in one Texas county who tested positive for COVID-19, the large new South Korea study that showed children between the ages of 10 and 19 spread the coronavirus just as much as adults do, and the fact that summer camps are already becoming COVID-19 hot spots—with outbreaks happening in Missouri, New Jersey, and Texas.
Sure, infants and children generally display mild coronavirus symptoms, but severe complications are possible, especially for those with underlying conditions. And if older children are just as likely to spread COVID-19 as adults, what's that mean for transmission in schools? What kind of confidence can parents have about sending their children to school in person this year?
Here, we've compiled recommendations from the most trusted sources about whether or not schools should reopen so you can be informed before deciding what's best for your family.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
"Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff," the AAP recently said in a statement. "Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools ... For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions"
The Florida Chapter of the AAP, for example, has called for school districts to decide whether or not schools should reopen based on COVID-19 prevalence in their areas.
This comes as an update to the AAP's original guidance, which stated that it "strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."
Citing the pros of getting kids back into classrooms if schools are able to enforce social distancing, the AAP says that "the importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020." Between learning deficits, social isolation, and even abuse or depression, the AAP says that time away from school can place "children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality."
The AAP's guidance echoes commentary out of the journal Pediatrics, which concluded that "children infrequently transmit COVID-19 to each other or to adults and that many schools, provided they follow appropriate social distancing guidelines and take into account rates of transmission in their community, can and should reopen in the fall."
This was before the South Korea study found that older children can transmit the coronavirus just as easily as adults. Noting that "SARS-CoV-2 appears to behave differently in children and adolescents than other common respiratory viruses, such as influenza, on which much of the current guidance regarding school closures is based," it's unclear whether or not this new research will impact the AAP's recommendation.
Reopen schools, but only if it's safe. Allow local educators, public health experts, and parents to have a say based on what's happening in their community.
National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine
According to a new report out of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, "school districts should prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs."
Weighing health risks of reopening schools against educational risks of continuing with remote learning, the committee strongly recommends in-person education—with precautions like hand-washing, social distancing, and avoiding community gatherings (like lunch or recess).
Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and member of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine committee who worked on the report, told the New York Times that the new study from South Korea does not change their recommendation.
Reopen schools, especially for younger children or children with disabilities.
World Health Organization (WHO)
“We know that overall they tend to have more mild disease, but in some situations they can have severe disease and we have seen children that have died,” Maria Van Kerkhove, Ph.D., head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, told CNBC.
While research generally shows that kids don't have severe complications from COVID-19, Mike Ryan, M.D., executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, points to the as-yet-to-be-seen long-term effects the virus could have on children's health.
Because of this, the WHO recommends that "Deciding to close, partially close, or reopen schools should be guided by a risk management approach to maximize the educational, well-being and health benefit for students, teachers, staff, and the wider community, and help prevent a new outbreak of COVID-19 in the community."
Reopen schools only in places with low infection rates and low community transmission. The WHO also says that the decision for children, teachers, and staff with underlying conditions—like asthma, obesity, or diabetes—to return to school "depends on their health condition, the current transmission of COVID-19 within their community, and the protective measures the school and community have in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Following the White House's push for schools to reopen, the CDC has released new guidance on the importance of reopening schools.
"School closure disrupts the delivery of in-person instruction and critical services to children and families, which has negative individual and societal ramifications," the statement reads. "Reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being, and future of one of America’s greatest assets—our children—while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all their families."
This comes after initial recommendations by the CDC—which considered full-size, in-person classrooms to be a high risk—were criticized by President Trump. The new guidance emphasizes that "aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school," stressing the impact in-person instruction has on education, social and emotional skills, nutrition, and safety.
The guidance, however, does not take into account the ever-changing data on COVID-19 and relies on the fact that, so far, evidence shows that "COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus."
The Bottom Line
Most experts are pointing to schools reopening this fall, but only if it's deemed safe by local health officials, educators, and parents. With infection rates rising in many areas of the country, effects of the coronavirus on various age groups and communities still being studied, and families in very different positions—we've got to keep in mind the fact that some parents won't have a choice due to work, money, or child care limitations—across the country, the decision of whether or not to send kids back to school in person is going to be a very personal one.
It's a heavy burden to bear: Suddenly parents have to make very serious decisions for their families, acting with whatever health information they have and not knowing the implications of their choices for some time. And for many educators, the option to have a choice simply does not exist. It's an impossible position, but all you can do right now is trust your gut and respect the difficult choices parents are making with the well-being of their kids in mind.