We're asking the wrong questions about school reopening

We're asking the wrong questions about school reopening
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The news headlines say it all — “Should schools reopen this fall despite the spike in COVID-19?” “Will schools be safe this fall?” We are asking the wrong questions, and as a result, we are failing our children. Here’s the question we should be asking: How do we make schools safe for teachers and students?

Schools play an essential role in society. Beyond the primary goal of education, school cafeterias provide critical nutrition to over 30 million children. School nurses administer insulin injections and asthma medications. Speech therapists and reading specialists work to ensure that children with learning differences will have every opportunity to succeed. Importantly, schools are a safe space for children who don’t have a secure alternative during the day.

Essential services like hospitals and grocery stores require essential workers. We didn’t — and shouldn’t — ask doctors to stop seeing sick patients during a pandemic. Similarly, we kept grocery stores open. The focus, appropriately, was and is on how these services can serve their essential function, as safely as possible. We need to treat schools similarly, as essential to society. 


Teachers and schools need authentic and robust support, though. No amount of public cheerleading, in the form of putting up yard signs (although that’s nice) or buying teachers and staff donuts (even nicer), will ultimately dissuade this highly contagious and lethal virus from tearing through classrooms. 

Let’s consider hazard pay for teachers, to acknowledge the added risk that essential school staff assumes by placing their health on the line for our children’s future. Let’s have districts — not teachers — provide PPE, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass dividers to lower the risk of infection, with a willingness to adapt approaches as the public health evidence evolves. Let’s examine strategies to keep kids in small cohorts and to provide intermittent testing so we can detect and rapidly contain new cases to prevent outbreaks. 

This all costs money. Teachers and school staff are local heroes who safeguard the health and well-being of our future generation, but they can’t do this alone.

Teachers and children also need our best scientific, data-driven efforts to keep them safe, including safe from COVID-19. Children — especially young children — are less likely to spread COVID-19, while also being least likely to learn successfully remotely. Healthcare workers, given proper PPE, are no longer getting COVID-19 from patients, but from each other in break rooms when they relax social distancing standards. Critical information is evolving daily on how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from contracting COVID; it’s important to stay abreast of this rapidly changing knowledge. Answering how to operate schools safely should be driven by science, not politics. 

The science is clear that in-person learning is superior to remote learning for most students. Less than half of K-12 virtual learning programs meet state-based educational acceptability standards. Graduation rates from such programs are also poor. Public school graduation rates hover around 85 percent nationally. Meanwhile, hybrid schooling has a meager 61 percent graduation rate, and all-virtual schooling has a 50 percent rate — no better than flipping a coin. Yet in the current climate, dubious online learning options are proliferating, including charter-based programs and predatory for-profit virtual educational options whose educational track record is far worse than public schools. 

As they consider the fall, policymakers and families face trade-offs. They must weigh the role of schools as essential places of learning, child care, nutrition, and safety against the risks of COVID-19 infections among children, staff, and communities. These decisions should not be politicized with sweeping mandates or headline-grabbing tweets. Instead, science can illuminate how to put children first in these decisions and reopen schools.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.” Where we set priorities, we invest our dollars. If we were to put the needs of children first, what would that look like? We would provide robust and generous financial support to teachers and schools. We would shut down other aspects of society, as much as we could bear, to drive down cases to allow more schools to reopen. 

We would not be partying on the beaches. Disney World would not mind re-closing if that meant protecting children’s wellbeing. We would not be wasting breath debating how bars can operate if we can’t answer how schools can safely open. And for sure, we would not complain about wearing masks, if that small sacrifice was what it took for children to be taught, fed, and cared for. Kids would come first. 

Dr. Charlene Wong, a pediatrician and health policy researcher at Duke University, serves as the executive director of the North Carolina Integrated Care for Kids Model. Dr. Sarah Armstrong is a pediatrician and health services research at Duke University.