COVID-19: What Experts Think About Reopening Schools
By Kristen Fischer
It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
The group's recent recommendations include social distancing protocol based on different grades. For example, it's more feasible to keep preschoolers in small groups (known as "cohorting") with the same teacher throughout the day. Older children should have desks 3 to 6 feet apart and wear masks.
They also say schools should limit unnecessary visitors to the buildings and utilize outdoor spaces for learning. The guidelines recommend safer bussing, hallway traffic monitoring, cafeteria use, cleaning, and screening protocols among other recommendations.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, also voiced support for safe reopening measures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has guidelines for reopening schools.
Despite calls for them to be revised by President Donald Trump, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said they will not change, but the CDC will soon publish additional documents on symptom monitoring and mask usage.
But school administrators, parents, and teachers remain wary of going back to school full time as they fear becoming the site of super spreader events.
Keeping Schools Safe
What will safer schools look like?
In a JAMA article published last month, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.
Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.
He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.
Erika Martin, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.
Not all recommendations will be achievable for schools in certain areas, noted Lucy Sorensen, PhD, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany.
"It may not be feasible to space desks six feet apart or have windows open in classrooms in a New York winter," Sorensen explained.
Other strategies to safeguard school communities can include high-intensity ultraviolet light, thermal cameras, and conferencing systems.
"Social distancing will be hard for students," said Tina M. Pascoe, a nurse and co-founder of Nurses for Day Care, who has been involved with efforts to keep day care centers open during the pandemic.
Limiting class size, and not having special activities that require students to leave the room, will be key. "This keeps students stay in one cohort or like a family unit," she told Healthline.
Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted Rachel Widome, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.
"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.
Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.
Should Kids Go Back?
While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.
In a Pediatrics commentary, Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr., an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.
But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.
"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a June article in JAMA with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."
Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.
What Parents Can Do
Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.
"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.
"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.
She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.
"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.
Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.
"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added Lee Scott, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at The Goddard School. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.
Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a checklist for administrators, report on ethical considerations, and a tracker of state and local reopening plans.
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