For parents and teachers in the US, August usually means getting ready for the start of the school year: finalizing lesson plans, making sure all school supplies are ready, and potentially buying a new wardrobe for a fast-growing child. . However, in the face of a global pandemic, preparing for school means something completely different. It starts today with buying face masks and checking whether the school buildings have been reworked to allow for distance learning.
That is of course assuming that the schools will open again at all. Under the best of circumstances, that would be a tough decision, balancing the availability of additional staff, funding for facility changes, and conflicting interests in child development and physical health. But the whole issue has now become a partisan political issue, driven by an ill-informed president making major efforts to reopen schools†
With all that noise, it’s no doubt difficult for parents to figure out what factors to consider when making decisions for their children. To try to help, we reviewed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, National Academies of Science, the World Health Organization, and other expert groups, and found that their advice is generally consistent. What follows is an attempt to summarize both the considerations underlying this advice and the factors these experts suggest people keep in mind when making personal learning decisions this fall.
The case for school
Why even bother with schools in the face of a global pandemic? While keeping it closed would clearly minimize the risk, there is an obvious cost involved. An obvious one is education. Losing a year — or even a year interrupted by sporadic periods of quarantine — doesn’t just mean losing that year’s material. Effective educational standards structure each year so that it builds on the information conveyed to students in the previous year. A badly disrupted year means students are at a disadvantage the following year. And simply skipping the year will cause chaos in colleges and professional schools years later because of the highly structured educational pipeline.
It may be possible to remotely reconstruct some aspects of classroom time. But there are simply many educational activities that require school facilities: think chemistry labs and gym classes. And there’s a lot about the school environment that allows teachers to work more effectively, but that won’t be possible in an external environment. In real classrooms, teachers can observe how students do their work or interact with other students, and teachers can use that information to instruct individual students more effectively.
The replacement of distance learning will have limitations. Not every teacher will be proficient in the technique or technology needed to deliver distance learning effectively. And not every student will have access to the technology needed to make things work. This is especially true for underprivileged students, increasing the risk that going far could exacerbate pre-existing educational inequalities.
But beyond education, there are a number of reasons why reopening schools could be valuable, as schools provide many critical social services. Schools partly function as day care facilities for working parents. They can be an important food source for underprivileged families in the US. For students with special needs, there are often services that are only available to them in schools.
Finally, an important part of education is simply the interactions that take place between the students. This is especially true for younger students, as the National Academies report describes: “In grades K-3, children are still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention, and therefore have difficulty with distance learning. ” (Bringing that to its logical conclusion, the report states, “Schools should prioritize reopening for grades K-5.”) Learning to interact with and work with peers helps teach how to regulate behavior and emotions. And while this is most crucial for the youngest students, emotional learning continues throughout college.
On the other hand…
Given all those crucial functions of schools, it’s no surprise that many people are advocating finding a way to open them. Most of them, with the notable exception of the president, tend to clarify that with a critical caveat: they should as communities be able to find a way to open them up. safe† To understand what “safe” means in this context, we need to understand the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An important aspect of this is the direct risk to the health of children. On the bright side, it’s clear that young children generally have very few symptoms when infected, and often clear the infection without ever noticing any symptoms. The absence of symptoms also provides additional benefits, as there appears to be a risk of long-term damage, as evidenced by persistent symptoms. This one not means there is no risk to young children, but the number of serious cases and deaths in this population is extremely low compared to all other age groups. However, it is also important to emphasize that some students may have health conditions that put them at risk.
One of the problems with assessing risk here is that, once people reach their teens, they seem to face the same dangers as young adults. We don’t really have a good handle on when exactly this transition occurs, although Wendy Armstrong of Emory University, who summarized that data during a recent webinar, said evidence is piling up that it appears to be around age 10. While we still don’t understand why, risks are definitely higher in older students, which changes the considerations. It’s worth noting that the onset of increased risk roughly corresponds to the age at which it becomes less important for young students to learn personally, as detailed in the National Academies report.
But children are not the only ones attending schools; teachers and staff have to be there for the system to function, and many of them are in high-risk groups. There have even been situations where staff members spread the virus among themselves before the students arrived. If students can also spread the virus, the risk for staff increases significantly. Initially, some studies of small populations had suggested that children were less likely to pass on the virus. However, since then, further research has shown that even young children can carry high levels of the virus. While the relative risks are not yet well understood, it is clear that there are risks.
Finally, it is also noteworthy that the combination of few symptoms and many viruses increases the risk for schools as a whole, as infected students who feel well are more likely to participate in normal activities, thus increasing the likelihood that they will exposing peers and school staff to the virus.