Experts say schools could reopen, but data are still scarce

The medical journal JAMA released an article written by three CDC officials about opening schools. The conclusion was that it appears that reopening schools safely is possible—but before we turn everyone loose, there are a lot of caveats. And critically, protective measures that need to be taken are not limited to the schools themselves. 

When experts say that schools can be reopened safely, it means that so far, schools haven’t been driving community transmission the way other public spaces remaining open have. In a case study comparing 154 students who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and 243 who had not, schools posed much less of an infection risk than other social activities. The paper also cited two case studies, one from North Carolina and one from Wisconsin, where cases in general were fairly uncommon, and the vast majority of the recorded cases came from cases acquired from the community, not the schools. 

It’s clearly inaccurate to say that COVID-19 simply hasn’t hit schools. Indeed, if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t need our school trackers. And while many US school outbreaks have mostly been small, it’s not impossible a future outbreak could be anything but. The JAMA paper cites an outbreak in Israel where out of 1161 students and 151 staff members tested, 153 and 25 cases were found in students and staff, respectively, within two weeks of reopening. “Crowded classrooms…, exemption from face mask use, and continuous air conditioning that recycled interior air in closed rooms” were cited as contributing to the outbreak. Additionally, school-related activities such as extracurriculars and athletics could also pose a higher risk.

For longtime readers of this newsletter or even for anyone who’s kept up with the news, the path to reopening schools may sound familiar. Measures taken need to include universal mask use, a robust screening program, physical distancing, and hybrid models of education to reduce classroom density (including online options). But, critically, the article also stresses that measures need to be taken in the surrounding community to reduce spread, singling out indoor dining in particular. Indeed, schools are not isolated islands; the health of students returning for school depends on if a community can control the spread. Schools themselves may not be driving much community spread, but if COVID-19 is running uncontrolled in the community, it’s still not going to be safe to hold in-person classes. 

While it is exciting that schools reopening may be on the horizon, safe schools are nowhere near promised if governments and administrations aren’t willing to take necessary measures to control community spread. Closing restaurants and gyms is politically unpopular in many places. The economic incentives to keep indoor dining and to open movie theaters are hard to ignore. It may be a choice – open your schools and keep tight restrictions everywhere else, or loosen restrictions on dining and gyms and keep schools online. It’s not an easy choice. But, as the JAMA article points out, “Committing today to policies that prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in communities and in schools will help ensure the future social and academic welfare of all students and their education.”

Two days after the JAMA article was published, NYT columnist David Brooks published a column decrying teachers unions and insisting that schools reopen, citing financial concerns for students in the future and current mental health problems. He pointed out that typically, white students have had greater access to in-person learning than black and brown students, going on to say: “I guess I would ask you, do Black lives matter to you only when they serve your political purpose? If not, shouldn’t we all be marching to get Black and brown children back safely into schools right now?”

The response was swift, with many pointing out that the pandemic has disproportionately affected black and brown communities in terms of infection and death rates, and that they are more likely to live in underfunded communities where it might be a lot harder to keep students and staff safe. and that teachers maybe shouldn’t be blamed for not wanting to go back to work when there is still uncontrolled spread across the country. This Twitter thread sums up a lot of the backlash. 

Indeed, even if schools do open up, as we talked about in our January 17 issue, we’re still having a lot of problems tracking cases. There still isn’t a federal dataset; however, there is reason to hope that we’ll get some better federal data soon after Biden included a call for data to inform safe K-12 school reopening and data on the pandemic’s impact on teachers and students in his executive order on school reopening(See the CDD’s K-12 school data annotations here.)

We do know that black and brown children have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic; Hispanic/Latino and Black children account for 38.2% of cases in their age group while Hispanic/Latino and Black people account for only 31.4% of Americans. If schools do reopen in person, it’s clear that actions need to be taken to address structural inequity that would prevent them from doing so safely.

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