The COVID-19 pandemic is poised to make the 2020-21 school year as challenging as the last but now doctors believe the benefits for children being in school far outweigh the risks of catching coronavirus.
In the spring, the virus shuttered nearly every school building in a historic disruption of education. Schools were forced to shift to distance learning almost overnight.
As the coronavirus continues to ravage different regions, K-12 leaders are being forced to close and reopen for in-person lessons as infection rates ebb and flow.
Michigan City Area Schools reopened for in-person instruction last Monday. Traditional classroom learning looked a bit different, however, as the students, like these at Joy Elementary, wore masks and worked behind dividers designed to prevent the spread of COVID
Studies were conducted both in the U.S. and globally over several months. All appeared to come to similar conclusions, namely that schools reopening doesn’t appear to affect the rate of coronavirus spread in those areas
Some states may not weigh in at all on school operations, leaving the decisions entirely to local education and public health leaders.
Currently 7 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have state-ordered full or partial closures in effect.
Two international studies show there is no direct correlation between in-person classes and the spread of coronavirus.
Anecdotally, the findings tally with data crowdsourced and compiled from 2,000 schools.
Kate Phillippo, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education said ‘kids are hurting in all kinds of ways.’
‘They’re worrying about their safety, worrying about their loved ones’ safety, worrying if they were going to be sick, wondering what was going to happen to them, to their schools,’ she said to the Chicago Tribune.
Some doctors say the risks of mental health problems, hunger, obesity due to inactivity and missing routine medical care is worse than risks of being at school (file photo)
Some pediatricians are now hoping conversations will shift from the risks of reopening to the risks of keeping schools closed.
‘As a pediatrician, I am really seeing the negative impacts of these school closures on children,’ said Dr. Danielle Dooley, a medical director at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.
‘Going to school is really vital for children. They get their meals in school, their physical activity, their health care, their education, of course,’ she told NPR.
Dooley says apart from missing out on their education, children are suffering mental health problems, hunger, obesity due to inactivity, missing routine medical care and some are at a greater risk of being abused.
Schools across the United States and elsewhere are trying out a wide range of strategies to reopen, from all online classes to all in person. They are asking whether reopening schools with stringent mitigation measures is worth the risk to students, families and educators, given that keeping schools closed will likely harm academic progress, social and emotional development, mental health and food security.
A child holds a sign during a protest to the closing of Public School 130 outside the school building for safety reasons, following the outbreak of the coronavirus earlier this month (file)
Similar data on the effect of school re-openings despite a cluster of coronavirus cases was also observed in a Spanish study.
Although a second wave of the virus began in September, after the school year began, cases in one area dropped three weeks into term, others continued rising at the same rate, while another remained flat.
There was no sudden spike that coincided with school re-openings.
Nowhere, the research found, was there a spike that coincided with reopening.
‘What we found is that the school being opened makes absolutely no difference,’ Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya told NPR.
‘We are not sure that the environments of the schools may not have a small and systematic effect, but it’s pretty clear that they don’t have very major epidemic-changing effects, at least in Spain, with the measures that are being taken in Spain.’
Some parents at a Brooklyn school protested after it was closed due to a COVID outbreak. They believe there is no substitute for in-person learning and some studies appear to agree
At school, basic safety measures were introduced including mask-wearing for children aged six and older, improved ventilation, keeping pupils in small groups and sticking to a social distancing of 1.5 meters.
A similar finding was detected by Insights for Education which advises education departments around the world.
Their report looked at trends between February and September in 191 countries.
‘There is no consistent pattern. It’s not that closing schools leads to a decrease in cases, or that opening schools leads to a surge in cases,’ said head of the organization Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary.
‘We’re not saying at all that schools have nothing to do with cases. What the data suggests instead is that opening schools does not inevitably lead to increased case numbers.’
A sign ‘Welcome Back to School’ is seen at the entrance of a closed public school in the Gravesend neighborhood, a COVID-19 hotspot area in Brooklyn at the start of October
In Utah, the coronavirus spread is relatively high with more than 100,000 infections, and the data appears show that schools are not driving the spread.
‘Where you see cases on the rise in a neighborhood, in a county, we see that tend to be reflected in a school,’ State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said. ‘We’re not seeing spread by virtue of being in school together.’
It adds weight to doctors’ arguments that in-person schooling is preferred whenever possible.
‘Children under the age of 10 generally are quite low risk of acquiring symptomatic disease from the coronavirus,’ said Dr. Rainu Kaushal of Weill Cornell Medicine.
‘I would like to see the students, especially the younger students, get back,’ said Malani at the University of Michigan. ‘I feel more encouraged that that can happen in a safe and thoughtful way.’
Markings on the hallway floor at Joy Elementary in Michigan City, Indiana, help students keep a proper distance when it’s their classroom’s turn to use the restrooms
At the Yale University researchers surveyed 57,000 child care providers and compared the numbers of infections and hospitalizations between workers whose programs were open stayed open which were shuttered.
There were no differences in the proportion of those who contracted the disease and who looked after children, and those who did not.
The study suggests that so long as schools and other venues following core health and safety practices there is no greater risk.
‘While plenty of U.S. child care workers contracted COVID-19 in May and June, it wasn’t driven by whether they were working with children or not,’ said Professor of Psychology Walter Gilliam. ‘Under certain conditions, it’s possible to open child care programs without putting staff in harm’s way.’
‘It’s understandable that families, employers, and early childhood development experts all want to see child care programs reopen,’ said Lynette Fraga, CEO of Child Care Aware of America, a child care advocacy organization. ‘It’s hard for parents to work without child care — and it’s hard for young children to thrive without opportunities to engage with attentive adults and other children.’