Reopening Schools During COVID — A Scientist’s Perspective
Note: This was written by several members of 500WS Philly Pod, we are parents, scientists, and educators. While this is an opinion piece, we are utilizing references and recommendations by experts in education and in research on SARS-CoV-2.
A few months ago, we wrote a blog post about COVID and the current myths and conspiracies that surround this disease. Since then, the amount of cases in Bucks County, PA has increased by about three thousand. Statewide, Pennsylvania now has 130,000 confirmed cases. As a response to the anticipated second wave, Philadelphia has canceled all large events until February of 2021. We still aren’t sure if October will show us another large wave of infections, but we suspect that if schools reopen irresponsibly, we will.
Thinking about reopening schools this fall has been on the mind of many parents right now. We got through a tough spring of virtual learning, and we are all keen to get our kiddos out of the house as we continue to work from home. There is a clear unfair burden on parents who happen to be scientists. But if we are working from home because of our concerns regarding the current pandemic and how it’s being handled in this country, why would we send our children back out in the world?
Even though we have been battling COVID-19 for over 6 months, we still don’t know enough about this disease to make the safest choices. What we do know is that as of August 29, 2020, this disease is killing 7.9% of people in the US this week (down from 12.3%), and while children are less likely to get it, they can get sick. Children account for 338,000 (8.8%) of the cases in the US. And what’s even more disturbing is that children can be carriers with a high viral load and the rates of false negatives can vary depending on your time from exposure. Having the ability to test asymptomatic people is vitally important if we want to move forward with reopening our schools and return to normal, but now the White House has recommended that the CDC reduce the amount of testing. It’s more than clear that this disease is hitting communities across the US disproportionally, impacting black and brown people the hardest. Let’s not forget that If you do survive this disease, there are long-term, painful health effects and the most recent news is that you CAN get reinfected.
With all of this information, it’s clear that the United States has failed to manage this pandemic, and to ask children to return to school on a normal schedule is irresponsible at best, deadly at worst.
As parents, we see a failure on multiple fronts. Our country has failed us — from the recent decisions and inaction that put the lives of all Americans at risk to the slow, continual defunding of our public education system. Local governments have had to juggle and cobble together plans that try and make everyone happy instead of choosing the best safety measures. And now some of our school districts are failing to present us with safe choices as they are forced to function in a broken system.
California announced virtual learning in July, and other states have followed their lead, at this point about 52% of US schools are opening virtually. Four states are reopening for in person schooling: Iowa, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas. Most states are inconsistent, allowing individual districts to make that decision. These careless reopenings are leading to huge surges in infections. While children may not get as sick as often from COVID, they are playing a role in transmission.
We can sit here and argue all the reasons children should not go to school: the risks to the children, teachers, and families is substantial. If you want to calculate your own risk, National Geographic recently published an article on how to measure your risk as we move back to school. Parents now are stuck with the poor choices of our children’s mental health or their physical health — basically, no good choices. Many schools suffer from under-funding, some children need the free meals at school, and tragically some children are only safe at school. We have to come to reopening agreements with equity as well as health and safety in mind.
The CDC has updated its recommendations, which include some common sense ones like wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and ensuring proper handwashing. Emily Oster wrote an op-ed about reopening schools and within that post, there are some great recommendations. There are engineering and environmental controls (think about HVAC systems and proper filtration), administrative controls (social distancing, canceling extracurricular activities), epidemiologic controls (contact tracing), and PPE and hand hygiene (wearing a mask, washing your hands).
Emily discusses face shields, but it’s been shown that these aren’t as effective to limit the spread of the disease. Wearing a mask shouldn’t be a political issue, it’s a safety issue, a responsible citizen issue and a simple consideration for all society. Wearing a mask works to reduce the spread of COVID, period.
Some schools around the world have shown you can reopen schools safely. Three basic recommendations prevail — wash your hands often, wear a mask, and practice social distancing. NASEM presented a COVID conversations webinar discussing reopening K-12 schools, in it they highlighted the issues we currently face (inequality, lack of resources), updated recommendations from the July study, and a case study of success (Denmark).
With all of this in mind, here are our recommendations for all children who are returning to school in-person:
- Wear a mask, if your school doesn’t mandate it, demand that change from the school board.
- Ensure your school has adequate hand washing and sanitizing stations
- Ensure your school has the ability to enact a hybrid program that allows for staggered school attendance that enables proper social distancing
- If you can, keep your children at home. This enables those children who truly need to attend school to be there as often as possible.
- Reach out to your leaders and representatives. Ask your reps to support the science — masks can work when used properly!
If you are in PA, call your reps about the following Bills
- SUPPORT HB2630 Protections for Childcare and Preschool providers
- SUPPORT HB2786 Increasing Broadband to Unserved and Underserved Areas
- SUPPORT HB2768 Ensuring Transparency About COVID-19 in Schools
- SUPPORT HB2809 & HB2810 COVID-19 Childcare Assistance
- REJECT SB1243 School District Opt-Out Option for Mask Mandate
If we follow these recommendations, we can slow the spread of this deadly disease until a vaccine is ready. Until then, we must work together as a community to keep each other, and our children, safe.