Schools across the country are grappling with the difficult choice of whether or not to reopen and how to do so with reduced risk. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, not far from one of the main sites where Pfizer frantically manufactures vaccines, they plan to stay virtual until the end of the school year. In Iowa, a state without a mask warrant, children can now return full-time in-person learning. Meanwhile, in a school district in San Mateo County, Calif., Which borders Silicon Valley, there’s no clear decision – and low-income, well-off parents arguing over what to do.
It has been a difficult journey. Since March 2020, when most schools closed, districts have been urged to adapt time and time again – to new scientific data on the behavior of the virus, new policy recommendations and the different needs of families, children, teachers and staff.
Now, as President Biden moves forward with his promise to reopen most schools in its first 100 days, the debates seem more complicated than ever and offer a glimpse of the many difficulties of reopening society as a whole.
The limits of “guidance”
Schools across the country have turned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for advice on how to operate during a pandemic. In his last recommendations, the CDC says a lot of things we’ve heard all year: that everyone in a school building should wear masks, stay at least six feet apart, and wash their hands frequently. But schools have found that even when the guidelines seem relatively simple on paper, they are often much more difficult – if not downright impossible – to put into practice.
“There is a difference between public health mitigation policies when we think about them and when we write them, and then when we try to implement them,” says Theresa Chapple, epidemiologist in Washington, DC. “We see that there are barriers at play.”
Chapple beckons a recent study by the CDC which reviewed elementary schools in Georgia. After just 24 days of in-person learning, researchers found nine clusters of covid-19 cases that could be linked to school. In all, about 45 students and teachers have tested positive. How did it happen? Classroom layout and class sizes meant that physical distancing was not possible, so students were less than three feet apart, separated only by plastic dividers. And while students and teachers mainly wore masks, students had to have lunch in their classes.
The researchers also note that teachers and students may have become infected “during small group instruction sessions in which teachers worked in close proximity to students.”
Following CDC best practices can be inherently difficult, but it is also complicated by the fact that these are only guidelines: States and other jurisdictions set the rules, and these often conflict with this. that the CDC says to do. As of February 15, schools in Iowa are required to offer fully in-person learning options that some school officials say make distancing impossible. Since the state no longer has a mask mandate, students are not required to wear masks at school.
The jurisdictions that follow all of these different policies have one thing in common: Although case totals have fallen since their peak in January, the vast majority of the United States still has strong or significant community spread. One great thing to take away from the CDC’s latest guidelines is that high community transmission is linked to increased risk in schools.
“If we open schools,” says Chapple, “we’re saying there’s an acceptable amount of allocation that we’ll take to get the kids educated.”
Meet different needs
Some schools are trying alternative tactics that they hope will reduce the risks associated with in-person learning.
In Sharon, a Massachusetts town just south of Boston where about 60% of public school students still learn remotely, groups of students and staff are called twice a week to a central location in their building. school for a voluntary covid-19 test. One by one, children as young as five show up, sanitize their hands, lower their masks, swab their own nostrils and place their swabs in a single test tube intended for their entire cohort. To make room for everyone, sometimes even the manager’s office becomes a test site: one person inside, one person outside. The tubes are then sent to a lab for something called “pooled testing”.
Pooled testing allows a small group of samples to be tested for covid at one time. At Sharon, each tube contains 5 to 25 samples. If the test for that small group is negative, the whole group is cleared. If it is positive, each member of the group is tested until the positive individual is found. Meg Dussault, the district’s acting superintendent, says each pool test costs the school between $ 5 and $ 50, and more than a third of students and staff at Sharon’s public schools participate.
“I saw the benefits,” she says. “And I think it’s essential.”
Because schools are unevenly funded and largely through taxes, access to resources is a common theme in discussions about reopening schools. The state paid for Sharon’s pilot period, but not all districts or schools have the money or the staff to mount large-scale programs – and Dussault says the district will have to foot the bill for any testing one once this program ends in April. He will also have to continue to count on the goodwill of the volunteer parents who compete for the students and the levies for the tests each week.
In the seven weeks after starting pooled testing, Dussault says, only one batch came back positive. It gave him peace of mind.
And even with mitigation measures in place, there are marked demographic differences in opinion on the reopening. A recent Pew study found that black, Asian and Hispanic adults are more likely to support retention until teachers have access to vaccines. These groups are also more likely than white adults to say that the risk of transmitting covid-19 “should be considered” when reopening the scale.
Chapple is concerned that the concerns of these parents are being overlooked or that funds for distance learning are dwindling because some districts decide to switch to in-person learning.
She says, “School districts should keep in mind that if they reopen but a small percentage of their minority students return, what does that look like in terms of fairness?”