Schools face tough road to fall opening
Just weeks before fall classes are scheduled to begin, school districts across the country are racing to implement new measures meant to protect teachers, students and parents from the coronavirus.
But as they prepare for socially distanced lunch hours, constant hand-washing and possibly even staggered attendance to minimize the number of students in the building at one time, education officials are watching with concern as schools in other nations become epicenters of new flare-ups.
Nearly 100 schools in Israel shut down in early June, after students or teachers tested positive in the weeks after the nation reopened its education facilities. A week after France reopened about a third of its schools, dozens of students tested positive and some institutions shut down once again. And in South Korea, hundreds of schools were open for just a few days before the Ministry of Education ordered them closed.
In the United States, at least 120 students living in fraternity houses at the University of Washington have tested positive for the virus.
Public health officials say they want to see schools reopen this fall in some form, conscious that keeping kids out of school can have damaging effects over the long run.
And President Trump has been vocally in favor of allowing children to return to physical classrooms, tweeting Monday, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”
But experts say the conditions for reopening will depend on how rapidly the coronavirus is spreading through local areas.
“When you look at schools, there really is a delicate balance there, because obviously if you have massive, massive outbreaks where you have an exponential elevation of a curve of new infections in a particular area, you really don’t want to have the kids go to school there. But we really need to be much more flexible in what we can do to get the children back to school,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview last week with the Journal of the American Medical Association. “The principle should be how can we prudently, with sensitivity to the safety of the kids, get the children back to school.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an organization known for its caution, published guidelines last week urging policymakers to get children back in schools.
“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” the association said in a statement laying out safe back-to-school procedures. “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.”
The group said time away from school interrupts supportive services for children in need of extra care, and it could lead to depression and even thoughts of suicide for children, as well as allow abuse to go undiscovered.
Florida on Monday ordered all public schools to open in the fall and laid out requirements they must meet if they wish to offer remote learning options. Local officials have some latitude to override the directive if coronavirus cases climb in their counties but the order made clear that Florida officials expect schools to welcome students next month.
But most school districts have not issued final plans for what a new year would look like. Many districts have surveyed parents, students and teachers about their top priorities for the year.
Public health experts said school districts are looking for answers to a host of questions about what works in preventing the spread of the virus: Whether they should spend thousands on plexiglass to divide students from teachers or each other; how best to ventilate a classroom; whether ultraviolet light can sterilize an environment; how often students should wash their hands.
“There are just dozens of practical questions,” said Prabhjot Singh, a health systems and global health expert at the Mount Sinai Health System and the Icahn School of Medicine in New York. “Practitioners, every day people have to make decisions and they have to defend those decisions to their constituents.”
The clock is ticking toward August and September.
In a note to parents, the Washington, D.C., public school system said their survey of almost 20,000 students, parents and staff showed they wanted a consistent and predictable schedule, the freedom to choose between virtual and in-person learning and an improved virtual learning component.
“Our schools are planning for a hybrid schedule that includes both in-person and virtual learning, ensures classroom size meets social distancing measures, provides all students with equitable access to resources to learn outside of the classroom, and operation modifications to prioritize the health and safety of our entire school community,” Chancellor Lewis Ferebee wrote to parents.
Others are considering how to proceed.
In Nevada, the Washoe County School Board will meet Tuesday to debate whether to hold classes completely in-person, entirely remotely or some hybrid of the two. In Columbus, Ohio, half of students will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half Thursdays and Fridays; the groups will learn remotely the remaining three days of the week.
“As I’m sure you can imagine, the traditional school year and past routines have forever changed. However, our commitment to keeping your child safe has not changed,” Superintendent Talisa Dixon wrote to parents.
The experiences in other countries, and the fast-rising case counts in most states across the country, make it likely that at least some school systems will remain closed to in-person learning until epidemiological curves begin to bend downward. Others that open may be forced to close again if the virus spreads more widely.
When it comes to schools, Fauci said, one size does not fit all.
“There are going to be some counties, maybe even some regions, where the infection is so low there’s absolutely no problem whatsoever with just making no changes in schools,” he said. “And there may be other areas of the country where the viral dynamics are so intense that you’ve really got to be really careful when you make that decision.”
Like so many other facets of society, what was once normal may not return until a successful vaccine is proven and distributed widely.
“Having people on edge the entire year without knowing what to look for, it’s just going to be an incredibly exhausting year for everybody involved,” Singh said.
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