Opening Schools Safely
As students across the country begin the 2020-21 school year, it looks very different from the start of school in fall 2019. While back-to-school is taking many forms this year – from all virtual, to hybrid, to rotating schedules – we have some guidance from across the globe that can help guide the return to school buildings, either now or in the future.
In late April, many school buildings around the U.S. remained shuttered, and analysts at McKinsey & Company disseminated this article with three key questions for government officials and school administrators to consider for school reopenings:
- When should schools reopen?
- For which segments of students and teachers (if not everyone) should schools reopen?
- What health and safety measures should schools adopt on reopening?
Jake Bryant, Emma Dorn, Stephen Hall & Frédéric Panier, “Safely back to school after coronavirus closures” (April 29, 2020)
Tracking School Approaches
There is considerable variation in how policymakers and administrators are approaching the return to school this fall. The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) maintains a database of state responses to reopening schools in the 2020-21 school year as well as a database of district-level responses for 100 districts, ranging in size, locale, and urbanicity, and serving nearly 10 million students across the U.S. The district database includes the 30 largest districts in the country, members of the Council of Great City Schools, smaller, rural districts (that participate in CRPE’s rural studies), and, when necessary, at least one district from otherwise-unrepresented states. These databases document the many approaches to school reopening, and demonstrate that states have largely ceded decision-making power and authority to local officials and school districts.
A National Academies consensus study report, Reopening K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic, provides guidance to decision-makers on considerations for reopening school buildings for partial or full in-person instruction. The report presents a framework for the decision of whether to reopen school buildings, and for how to reopen school buildings as safely as possible. The authors point out that in-person schooling will lead to COVID-19 cases, so decision-makers really have to decide whether to reopen given that risk, how to mitigate spread, and what to do once there are cases. They also highlight the importance of continuous data monitoring and clear thresholds for relaxing, enacting, or enhancing mitigation measures.
Learning from Experience
While March saw widespread school building closures throughout the U.S. and around the world, other countries went back to school throughout the summer months and their experiences can inform others’ efforts. An article in Science summarizes the experiences of some of these early-mover European countries, and echoes a key point in the other pieces that opening safely is not only about what schools do to mitigate risk, but critically dependent on community infection rates. The main lessons learned are that small groups of students, mask wearing, and physical distancing in school are effective ways to prevent outbreaks. In addition, younger children are rarely responsible for spread of the virus, either to each other or to those in their home. While an uptick in cases among young people in Germany tracked with school reopenings, there was also an increase in testing and a decline in cases among the elderly at the same time. Similarly, outbreaks among children in Israel occurred on the heels of the return to school, but it is difficult to know if the country’s rising caseload was the cause or the consequence of more student cases.