Wanting to get kids back to school and being able to do so safely are not the same thing.
We have learned in the coronavirus pandemic that most of the big outbreaks occur when large numbers of people gather indoors for an extended period of time — as they do in schools. Still, it is possible to get kids back to school safely — and we must do everything we can to make it so. This was also the conclusion of two recent reports, one from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and the other from the American Association of Pediatrics.
We know the benefits of in-person education, especially for younger elementary school children who struggle with online learning. In-person classes also play an essential role in supporting the mental health of children. Meanwhile, the shift to online learning exacerbates existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in education and risks setting back an entire generation of children.
State and local leaders across the country, including Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, are issuing guidelines for school openings, which, together with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — expected to be released by the end of the month — will help school districts make in-person instruction safer. But none provide districts with the most critical decision they have to make: how to know when reopening would be the wrong thing to do.
We can open schools safely. Doing so means meeting two sets of conditions: The level of the coronavirus in the community must be low, and the school itself must be prepared. But what is a low enough level? What should states and school districts prioritize if they can’t do everything to get their buildings, staff, and students ready? When does it make sense not to open at all? We need answers to these questions immediately. The window for making a decision is closing fast and, without this information, schools will probably default not to open.
The central variable is the level of COVID-19 in the community. There is no magic number that will make reopening entirely safe, but there are risk-assessment tools, including a COVID risk-level dashboard, developed by leading public health groups, that color codes counties across the nation according to the number of daily new cases. With a group of Harvard experts, we have developed guidelines based on these risk levels: red, orange, yellow, and green. If you are in a red zone, there is no way to open schools safely. Orange zones will struggle as well. If districts open schools in these areas, the chances are that those schools will probably close quickly when teachers, staff, and possibly students get sick in large numbers.
If leaders in these counties want to reopen schools in the fall, they must bring down the level of coronavirus. Way down. Starting now. That means moving to Phase 1 of the White House guidelines — which recommends no indoor gatherings of more than 10, including bars, indoor dining, and retail shops beyond essential services,
as well as masking that is actually enforced, and ramping up of testing and tracing. If counties implement these guidelines, it’s possible that these communities could get back to in-person learning sometime this fall.
Yellow counties — like all those in Massachusetts — are in a slightly better position but must still make hard choices. To prevent a resurgence of cases, these districts must close bars, gyms, and ind
oor dining and consider how much nonessential retail they are willing to tolerate. We can open schools in yellow counties. But getting them to a green level will make opening schools much safer.
These efforts alone will not be enough. School districts have neither the resources nor the know-how to get their buildings ready to open safely. School officials will have to get creative. For example, doing away with assemblies and cafeteria lunches opens up opportunities to use those spaces as classrooms. Cities and towns should also consider using libraries as supplemental classrooms. As long as weather permits, schools should hold some classes outside wherever possible, as many schools in Europe have done.
States and the federal government will need to help. Purchasing and installing updated air filter systems is beyond the capacity of most school districts but is also an ideal opportunity to put millions of unemployed Americans to work on securing the future of our country.
Teachers and other staff who might be vulnerable to the coronavirus should be allowed to work remotely. There also needs to be regular testing of both teachers and students. Individual testing should be supplemented through other forms of public health surveillance, including, potentially, wastewater sampling, which offers another layer of protection.
This is an enormously difficult task. Politically, it is easier to call for reopening without doing the work to make it safe. But a key lesson we teach our kids is that if you want to accomplish something important you have to work for it.
As a country, we failed to protect our seniors from this pandemic, allowing 45,000 of them to die in just a few months. Kids are less vulnerable to the disease itself but plenty vulnerable from the massive disruptions of a failed pandemic response. If we deprive them of in-person education, we will have failed them too. We must commit to not letting our kids down.
Ashish K. Jha is a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and incoming dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.