As summer draws to a close and fall looms on the horizon, the topic of school re-opening is on the minds of parents and educators everywhere. Normally this time of year, shoes and school supplies are being bought, teachers are preparing classrooms for students, and school administrators are awash with letters to send to parents to inform them of the upcoming year’s procedures and events. This year, however, the impending start of the school year comes with a new challenge: COVID-19.
Closing schools early to slow the spread
In March, the coronavirus pandemic was just getting started in the U.S. As of March 13th, just over 1,800 cases were reported. Out of an abundance of caution, most schools chose to close physical classes in the following weeks and transfer to a digital format as cases began climbing rapidly. By April 1st, cases had already skyrocketed to over 213,000 confirmed.
According to JAMA, a peer-reviewed medical journal, closing schools when they did may have saved as many as 40,000 lives and prevented as many as 1 million infections. Experts add the caveat, however, that these predictions were made for classrooms devoid of social distancing and masking practices, which may change infection and fatality projections in future studies about convening or closing schools.
What sort of risk does the virus pose to children themselves?
Back in March, it was unclear how children would be affected by the virus. Usually when a novel virus appears, those on either end of the age spectrum join the immuno-compromised in being more vulnerable to severe illness and illness-related fatalities. Preliminary data suggested that children were catching the virus, but not at the same rate or with the same severity as adults. One thing missing from this discussion, however, would become apparent as the summer wore on.
Does the age of the child matter in determining risk?
When we think about schools reopening and discuss infection risks, many people think of small children. Small children are usually incredibly effective disease vectors, as they have very little respect for personal boundaries and a tendency to swap spit and snot at an alarming rate. Much of the discussion around school reopening has focused on the feasibility of getting young children to follow health protocols effectively.
However, one bit of relevant data often left out of this discussion is the fact that children only seem to have this remarkable ability to fight off the coronavirus until approximately age 10. Those in the age group of 10 to 19 seem to spread and be affected by the virus similarly to adults, putting them at higher risk than the younger age bracket. Kids only generally attend school starting at age 4 or 5, so the larger age group attending schools is actually the higher risk, older, group. It’s vital to include this information when discussing cases among children because it shows that the data proving children remarkably resistant to the virus is age dependent and therefore not universal.
Educators face risks in face to face classroom interactions
Another discussion being had at the district level over school re-opening is centered around teachers, and the risks involved for them. Most classrooms in the U.S. already face a challenge when it comes to fitting children into classrooms comfortably, and in previous years many classrooms are filled to and above capacity. In order to open safely, this has been addressed by offering digital options in many schools so they can reduce the number of physical attendees in brick-and-mortar school settings. If a percentage of a class attends virtually from home, they have a better chance of spreading the desks apart according to the CDC’s recommendation of 6 feet. But most districts admit that they will not be able to achieve 6 feet distancing because of space limitations. Some have installed plexi-glass, others are hoping increased ventilation will make a difference, but schools in the lowest income communities are often left behind by these piecemeal, classroom-by-classroom attempts at mitigation.
With students packed closely together and hit-or-miss compliant with masking policies, classrooms will inevitably be putting adults at risk. As teaching is often a lifetime career, many teachers are older and some face health conditions that put them at significantly higher risk for complications and death from COVID-19. School districts face teachers resigning or taking leaves of absence in order to avoid the classroom setting where they are not given adequate options for distance teaching opportunities.
The more we know, the more there is to be concerned about
While so much data leading up to this point has offered nothing but uncertainty, the numbers coming out of the summer testing are anything but uncertain.
As of July 9th, approximately 200,000 children had tested positive in the United States. By August 6th, 180,000 more cases had been reported. this is an increase of over 90% in just four weeks. In early July, 319 tested positive for every 100,000 children. Now that number is 501 per 100,000, a stunning increase in such a short amount of time. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports over 380,000 children have now tested positive.
While this seems like a small number, given the fact that now over 5 million Americans total have tested positive, it’s important to keep the perspective that most schools have remained shuttered since March, so these cases are occurring due to community transmission and not in classroom environments for the most part.
Some schools have already opened
As we see numbers increase with terrifying rapidity, there are schools that have already opened their doors for the fall semester. Unfortunately, the openings are not bringing with them good news. In Mississippi, where overall cases across the state are rising at a rate that labels them as an growing hot spot, one school district has already been hit hard by infections. in Corinth, Mississippi, one student testing positive in the first week led to over 100 quarantined and six more positive cases. While it’s likely these students contracted the virus before school started, the fact that they were attending and brought the virus with them to in-person classes suggests that more cases will follow within approximately 10 to 14 days, which is the average incubation time from contracting the disease to showing symptoms or testing positive.
In Georgia, a school went viral for a photograph shared by several students of a packed hallway. In the photo, students are elbow-to-elbow across the entire image, with only a handful of masks visible. The student who shared the photo was suspended, although her suspension was subsequently lifted. According to TMZ, “The school’s stance is that Hannah, and another student who posted the crowded hallway image, violated school policy about social media and posting images of minors without consent.”
While they may try to bury bad publicity, what they can’t bury is the fact that they will have to close temporarily now to clean the entire school because 9 students have tested positive.
In Tallahassee, Florida, schools have not even reopened yet but the district is plagued by deaths among staff members. At Fort Braden Elementary, a 19-year-old facilities employee died in July, after potentially contracting the virus from the school’s principal, who tested positive along with his wife and brother. After the 19-year-old, Jordan Byrd, died, the mother of his girlfriend passed away from COVID-19. Karen Bradwell, 53, was also a beloved employee at Fort Braden, during her time as director of an after-school program. And today news was released that Byrd’s mother has also succumbed to the disease. Jacqueline Byrd is a former employee of the same school her son was employed with, and the community has been rocked by the three back-to-back deaths.
With the data we have, what are schools choosing to do?
With these incidents to guide policy, many schools are considering or implementing digital-only opening for at least the first nine weeks grading period, or the first semester. But other schools are forging ahead with re-opening physical classes, citing a June letter by the AAP that claimed the risk to having children out of school was greater than the risk they faced by attending classes and potentially contracting the virus. President Donald J Trump even struck the posture that he would use the withholding of federal funds to punish schools that didn’t open brick-and-mortar options for their students. This led governors like Florida governor Ron DeSantis to put pressure on their respective state Departments of Education to force schools to open. In Florida, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran even issued an executive order requiring all schools to open for 5-days-a-week classes by the end of August.
However, two weeks after issuing the initial recommendation, the AAP released another letter clarifying that their intentions are being misinterpreted. The letter states in part,
“’Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.
‘Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible. For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.
‘Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the well-being of children, teachers, and staff will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses. We call on Congress and the administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools. Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person fulltime would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.'”
Despite this clear recommendation by experts in children’s health that districts need to be able to adjust their opening plans according to community spread and need, many states continue to push blanket policies that force all districts to adhere to the same expectations and limits the options of local authorities and school administrators. With fears of funding loss driving district choices, many educators and high-risk students are being placed in untenable situations.
So what does it all mean for the fall semester?
What all the data collected thus far has shown is is how very little we actually know about this virus. We don’t know if children have had such a low incidence of infection solely because schools have been closed since March. We don’t know how many children actually currently have it since testing has been rolled out unevenly and unreliably across states. We don’t know if the mitigation tactics being implemented in many school districts will be adequate. We don’t know how many teachers will actually return to the classroom given the risks they face in districts where community spread is high.
We do know that cases among children have increased alarmingly over the summer. We do know that they are being hospitalized with increasing frequency. Southern states have been especially vulnerable, and in Alabama, 22.5% of the state’s cases are children. We do know that educators face risks often being ignored in round-table discussions among politicians considering re-opening, many of whom continue to meet virtually rather than risk in-person meetings.
We do know that, until we know more, every day we choose to keep open brick and mortar classrooms in the face of rising cases among children and increased community spread, we put lives at risk. The numbers may not show the whole picture, but the trends they suggest should have parents and educators banding together to put pressure on district administrators and politicians to put the choice in the hands of the communities that will be affected. This is not a one-size-fits-all virus, hitting some areas much harder than others. With the numbers showing an increase in cases among children, we cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach to problem solving. The potential risk of the virus running wild in schools paints a grim picture for the future of community spread.