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A new report suggests US schools can—and should—reopen safely

Athit Perawongmetha/REUTERS
Social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 need to be implemented when schools reopen.
  • Alex Ossola
By Alex Ossola

Membership editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

School districts all over the United States are grappling with the prospect of reopening schools in August and September. Though school leaders want to give kids in-person instruction from which they benefit most (plus free up parents to return to work), they are mired in difficult questions:

How do we keep kids safe? What’s the plan if kids, teachers, or parents get sick? How should we respond if there’s an outbreak in our region? How can we afford to improve ventilation systems and keep facilities clean to combat the virus?

On July 15, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published a report attempting to answer those questions, in service of helping schools try to reopen in the fall. While the report may not offer much new information, it’s one of few concrete guidances available to US educators.

In a 125-page report, the 13 authors weigh the available evidence and determine that schools—particularly those that cater to kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, as well as those who serve students with special needs—should “prioritize” reopening full time. NASEM is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that convenes working groups of experts to review evidence and compile reports on thorny issues.

The report provides parents and educators with at least some guidance as they balance the risks of infection and delayed educational development. “Students of all ages benefit from in-person learning experiences in ways that cannot be fully replicated through distance learning,” the report reads. “The educational risks of extended distance learning may be higher for young children and children with disabilities.”

Reopened schools also give kids in need access to needed services, such as free meals and mental health care, that they might not have been getting during the lockdowns. And long-term virtual learning, while effective for some, could leave some students behind. “Virtual learning alone runs the risk of exacerbating disparities in access to high-quality education across different demographic groups and communities,” the report emphasized.

The schools should, of course, take precautions in opening up, the report reads. Staff should be equipped with surgical masks and hand sanitizer. Classrooms should be reorganized, and gathering practices altered in places like cafeterias to allow for social distancing. Class size should be limited, perhaps by creating small student cohorts. And schools should reduce what equipment is shared, while regularly cleaning surfaces for items that must be. Extra staff may be needed to make improvements to facilities.

But the report acknowledged that individual district may not be in a position to implement every fix. School leaders should make these changes “as feasible,” it suggests, and federal and state governments should invest in these changes as possible. They should also partner with public health agencies to evaluate plans and facilities and to monitor the spread of the virus locally.

On top of localized preparedness, the report recommended “urgent” areas of research that the authors believe the scientific community should prioritize. Unanswered questions include how children can be infected with and transmit the virus, the role of airborne transmission, and how well different mitigation strategies work. The fact that educators are having to make decisions about reopening schools and ways to reduce infection without clear scientific consensus means their efforts can only be informed by previous knowledge and best guesses, requiring a certain amount of trial and error.

Other countries that have already reopened their schools could provide US educators with some idea of which mitigation strategies work best. Denmark was the first European country to reopen its schools, in April, keeping students in small groups; the strategy did not result in an uptick in infections. In Japan, where schools reopened in May, students attend school only half the day and receive temperature checks before they sit at their desks located six feet apart. In Hong Kong, schools reopened at the end of May, but as additional waves of the virus hit the city, schools closed again as a precautionary measure.

In the US, plans for the fall vary widely. The two largest school districts in California—Los Angeles and San Diego—plan to do all-remote learning. New York City, the biggest school district in the country, plans to do a combination of in-person and online teaching. And in Florida, where one third of tested children returned positive results for Covid-19, schools plan to reopen for in-person instruction in August.

A patchwork of guidelines from state governments and public health departments, plus pressure to reopen from the Trump administration, only makes district leaders’ decision more complicated. But science-based measures may help guide the process.

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