The Imperative to Reopen the Schools
The American Academy of Pediatrics has released guidance “strongly advocat[ing]” for District Administrators to ensure that students are physically present at school, saying that schools are fundamental to providing academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, nutrition, physical activity, and mental health support both through onsite and through online mental health therapy.
While pushing for schools to open, President Donald Trump has complained that the guidelines are “very tough and expensive.”
How do we sort through this mess?
Will the Safeguards Work?
First, let’s consider those guidelines or safeguards upon which the entire premise for principals to reopen the schools is built. First, we need to understand how essential these safeguards are, and then assess the realistic expectation that District Administrators will be able to guarantee adherence to them.
Social Distancing Helps
A new analysis conducted by epidemiological researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that COVID-19 data in 58 cities showed that, for each day’s delay in social distancing, a coronavirus outbreak lasts days longer.
They studied cities throughout China and analyzed when the first cases were detected, when social distancing measures were implemented, and when the outbreak was considered contained.
“Every day saves time, saves effort, saves people becoming infected and probably saves lives,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who leads the UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “This is particularly important as we think about the coming weeks and months.”
“Our findings have implications for the timing of interventions in U.S. cities,” Meyers said. “The impact of delays may be particularly important for communities that are prone to rapid transmission, such as nursing homes, colleges, schools and jails.”
With this new research, the UT Austin team offers further evidence of the effectiveness of social distancing measures in reducing the spread of COVID-19.
The Difficulty of Social Distancing in Schools
Once we recognize the close correlation between social distancing and slowing the spread of the virus, we need to look more closely at schools to imagine what the social distancing will look like. And we find that, contrary to wishful thinking, the challenge for principals to enforce social distancing in schools is nothing close to simple.
Every facet of the school day will be fundamentally altered when students eventually return to school. This will include their time spent in classrooms, movement through hallways, traveling on buses, and extracurricular activities.
To prevent the coronavirus spread, District Administrators and principals must ensure social distancing—limiting group sizes, keeping students six feet apart, restricting non-essential visitors, and closing communal spaces.
But those measures run counter to how schools usually operate, with teachers and students working together in close quarters, children socializing throughout the day, and the buildings serving as a community gathering space.
Anyone who’s been to a school knows it will be difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee “absolute compliance with any social distancing measure,” said Mario Ramirez, the managing director of Opportunity Labs. He was the acting director for pandemic and emerging threats in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Ebola epidemic.
Wearing Masks Helps
Although the necessity to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 is controversial in some circles, there are several strands of evidence supporting the efficacy of masks.
One category of evidence comes from laboratory studies of respiratory droplets and various masks’ ability to block them. An experiment using high-speed video found that hundreds of droplets ranging from 20 to 500 micrometers were generated when saying a simple phrase. But, nearly all these droplets were blocked when a damp washcloth covered the mouth.
Another study of people who had influenza or the common cold found that wearing a surgical mask significantly reduced the number of respiratory viruses emitted in droplets and aerosols.
But the most persuasive evidence in favor of masks comes from studies of real-world scenarios. A recent study published in Health Affairs, for example, compared the COVID-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
It found that mask mandates led to a slowdown in the daily COVID-19 growth rate, which became more apparent over time. The first five days after a mandate, the daily growth rate slowed by 0.9 percentage points compared to the five days before the mandate; at three weeks, the daily growth rate slowed by two percentage points.
Another study looked at coronavirus deaths across 198 countries and found that those with cultural norms or government policies favoring mask-wearing had lower death rates.
Wearing a Mask is Difficult for Children
Considering the evidence-based correlation between weaning masks and slowing the spread of the virus, we need to consider how realistic it is for children to wear masks all day.
Wearing face masks is tough for some kids, even in short bursts. Wearing masks for longer stretches when they’re back in school may be a real struggle, especially for kids who learn and think differently. These are some of the reasons that it is so difficult.
Impulsive kids often act without thinking. They may do things like pull off their mask to talk to friends or teachers without realizing they’re doing it. They don’t mean to be defiant. But they struggle with self-control, which makes it difficult to stop and think about the rules or the risks.
Wearing a mask can be very upsetting for kids with sensory processing problems. They may not be able to tolerate the feel, smell, or closeness of a mask. That extreme discomfort can cause them to take off or fiddle with their masks and might even lead to meltdowns.
Trouble with Focusing
Kids who struggle with focusing and memory can have a hard time following rules. They may miss directions the teacher gives about mask-wearing or quickly forget them.
Motor Skills and Wearing Masks
Poor motor skills can make it physically difficult for kids to get masks on and off and adjust them to fit well. Kids may struggle in a few ways. They might have trouble making the right movements, grasping and maneuvering the elastic ear bands, or following the steps involved.
So, in light of the inability to enforce proper social distancing and mask-wearing for children, is it any wonder that so many teachers, amongst them those with underlying conditions or greater vulnerability, are petrified to return to school?
An EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders administered in June 2020 found that 62 percent of respondents were “somewhat” or “very” concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction in the fall.
In addition to age, one in three educators responded that they have medical problems that put them at risk in the face of the virus. More specifically, 36% of teachers, principals, and district leaders confessed to a physical condition associated with the coronavirus’s effects. Also, 69% reported that a close family member is in the population at risk.
These teachers and instructors, about 24% of the total, suffer from health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or obesity, or are older than 65, which makes them more vulnerable, the Kaiser Family Foundation report found.
Cossondra George, a Michigan teacher who has asthma and is 59 years old, expressed her nervousness about returning to school, “I’m really worried about my health, and I’m worried about the health of my students. I feel that opening schools again has to be a really well thought out process.” She also said that she has more questions than answers about the issues, and especially the considerations about maintaining social distancing.
Fear of Death
“Are we going to attempt to check 850 kids every morning? Where is that time coming from?” she asks. And the more questions she asked, the less satisfied she was with the answers if she got answers. “It’s life or death,” Henshaw says.
She felt school leaders weren’t taking the health of teachers and other staffers seriously. “So the entire process just left me as a human shattered,” she says. “How could three months ago everybody think of us as educators as extremely important, needed, our value was invaluable, and now we were being told that our lives weren’t valuable.”
“How horrible is it that one of the things on the list to do is to have a plan for students and teachers dying?” Denise Bradford, a teacher in Orange County, California’s Saddleback Valley Unified School District, told CNN.
Bradford is not alone: Many teachers CNN spoke with, some who requested they not be named due to fears of repercussion from their school districts, said they are preparing for the worst this fall.
Writing their Wills
Louise, a special education teacher in another state where COVID-19 is surging, told CNN she was preparing her will and a living will. She is also looking into supplementary life insurance as she gets ready to go back into the classroom next month.
Eleeza, a high school teacher in the same district, told CNN she was updating her will, and putting a trust in place for her disabled, high-risk 19-year-old son.
Amy Forehand, a first-grade teacher who was comfortable going on the record with her full name but not her school’s name or location, said figuring out how much supplemental life insurance to sign up for is a priority for this weekend. “How are we in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m going into this germ factory, and we don’t have a will?” she said, speaking of herself and her husband.
Is The Proof in the Pudding?
Some schools that have already reopened are being forced to close because students and staff are testing positive. In Cherokee County, Georgia, a high school closed just days after opening. About 1,100 students and staff were in quarantine.
At schools in Muncie, Indiana, 200 were quarantined. In southern Mississippi, almost 100 students were sent home this week after coming into contact with a teacher exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
As more schools begin to reopen, for some, the question is morphing from, “Should we reopen?” to “How can we remain open?”
The good news is that the U.S. recently announced it would purchase 100 million doses of Moderna’s experimental vaccine, currently in late-stage human trials.
Whether or not the vaccine is a game-changer remains to be seen. However, with such uncertainty, anxiety, and fear amongst so many of our nation’s finest servants, those devoted to our precious children’s education, it may be the best we can hope for!