Kids, COVID, and classrooms—what’s the right answer?

Should schools reopen in the fall? "There are lots of uncertainties and no perfect answers," writes NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid as she analyzes five critical factors to consider.

Shonda Rhimes tweet

Note: Just as I was finalizing this article, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released an outstanding report: Reopening K–12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic. I highly recommend reading at least the summary.

Many of you already knew this, of course, but teachers are amazing! Parents around the world who—like Shonda Rhimes—have been schooling their children at home during lock-down are coming to a new-found realization that what teachers do is really stinking hard. Small wonder that everybody wants schools to open and for life to go back to a little more like normal.

But is it safe? Can we make it safe?

First, let me ask you another question: which shape doesn’t belong?

four shapes

Is it the triangle because it’s the only shape with three sides? Or is it the transparent diamond, because it’s the only shape that’s not filled in? With a little thought, you can make a case for any of the shapes as the outlier. In other words, there is not one right answer. There are many right answers, and which one strikes you as most compelling depends on which characteristic you focus on. (This is a great exercise to do with your students early in the year, just to introduce the idea that not all questions have a single best answer.)

Of course, the question of whether to open schools during a pandemic is especially complicated. But instead of lots of perfectly fine, equally correct answers, as with the shapes, there are lots of uncertainties and no perfect answers. To attain the best possible understanding of what to do, we need to consider five major factors:

  • How great a risk is the coronavirus to children?
  • Are children important transmitters of the virus?
  • How great a risk is the coronavirus to teachers and staff?
  • How much virus is circulating in the community?
  • What are the costs of not opening schools?

How great a risk is the coronavirus to children?

Case reports from all over the world consistently find a low percentage of cases in children. During the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, about 2% of confirmed cases through February 11, 2020, occurred in children. In the U.S., between February 12 and April 2, 2020, only about 1.7% of confirmed cases were children under the age of 18. During the early weeks of the pandemic in Spain in March 2020, only 0.8% of confirmed cases were in people younger than 18 years of age. Such consistent numbers suggest that children are unlikely to be infected, unlikely to show symptoms, or both.

Whatever the infection rate, the risk of serious disease or death to children is extremely low— for example, in Canada, in over 8,000 cases in children as of July 16, 2020, there have been only 120 hospitalizations and only one death. A rare syndrome called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), which appears to occur several weeks after infection with coronavirus, has been reported—a large survey from March 15 to May 20, 2020, of U.S. pediatric hospitals found 186 cases of MIS-C. The syndrome can be very severe but is rarely fatal—the survey found only four deaths.

Are children important transmitters of the virus?

One of the reasons that schools were closed early in the coronavirus pandemic is that schoolchildren are known to be important drivers in the spread of influenza. Multiple studies, however, suggest that children are not that important in spreading coronavirus. This may be because they are less likely to get infected in the first place or to show severe symptoms when they are infected. In any case, to date, contract-tracing studies have very rarely found children to be the “index” case in household spread.

If children are less likely to get infected or less likely to get severely ill, and either way unlikely to spread the virus, opening schools seems like a pretty safe bet. But there are some worrying signs. Despite taking extensive precautions, a camp in Missouri was forced to shut down when the virus spread widely among campers and staff. Other camps, athletic training programs, and summer schools have also had to close down when staff or students became infected.

How great a risk is coronavirus to teachers and staff?

Opening schools means adding a new category of essential workers—that is, workers who must do their jobs but cannot do so at home—to our economy. It means bringing teachers back to classrooms—and not only teachers but also aides, bus drivers, health and cleaning staff, and administrators. We know that essential workers have the highest rates of coronavirus infection and are important vectors of community spread. Even if children are not frequent transmitters of the virus, having so many adults back together in an indoor work space increases the risk of transmitting the virus to one another and carrying the virus home to their families. Many teachers have risk factors that increase the chances of serious illness. For example, almost 30% of public school teachers are more than 50 years of age and more than 7% are over 60. Close environments such as indoor classrooms and school buses are conducive to the spread of the virus, and maintaining ideal personal hygiene and physical distancing for hours at a time is extremely challenging. Most districts that are re-opening are trying to limit interaction among adults in schools, organizing students and teachers into small groups (or “bubbles”) in which they interact only with one another. This both limits spread and facilitates contact tracing in the event cases occur. Even so, it’s certain that teachers are going to be at greater risk if they return to the classroom than if they teach remotely. How much greater a risk depends on the prevalence of the virus in their communities.

How much virus is circulating in the community?

It’s hard to untangle the risks of coronavirus spread within schools—and from schools to communities—from the prevalence of the virus in general. It certainly seems that if the incidence of the virus in the community is very low, schools are unlikely to be major accelerators of outbreaks—especially if masks and social distancing are consistently required.

But if the incidence of coronavirus is substantial and rising, as is it is in most states right now, it is highly likely that every school will experience some cases. Every school district will have to have a plan in place for what to do when cases arise—close the schools back down? Send home students from affected classrooms?

As we’ve addressed over and over again in this series, adequate testing with timely results, followed by thorough contact tracing, is critical; without this most basic data gathering, all decisions are made in the dark.

What are the costs of not opening schools?

If students do not go back to school in person, the costs, both direct and indirect, are enormous. The children themselves lose valuable academic and social experiences. Some students will be in households where there is not enough food or little access to technology. They may have parents or guardians without the time or expertise to supervise their online learning. They may even face abuse. Some older students will have significant responsibilities to care for their younger siblings or to go to work to help support their families. Parents will find it difficult or impossible to work and home-school their children at the same time. The existing inequities in our educational system will only be compounded by the demands of universal remote learning. And, of course, the demands on teachers will still be enormous.

Ultimately, each community will have to figure out how much risk it is willing to accept in return for the benefit of opening schools. The range of decisions that have been taken by different countries around the world is wide, reflecting different ways of assessing and balancing the uncertainties. Some areas have prioritized opening schools for younger students (because they are even less likely to become ill than older students, and because remote learning is less practical with young children), while others have prioritized opening schools instead for older students because they are more able to comply with precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

There is no single right answer, only imperfect evidence and lots of uncertainty. The situation is chaotic and confusing, but many groups are working hard to help teachers adapt to remote instruction: OpenSciEd and STEM teaching tools are great places to start. Teachers will be on the front lines no matter what, and they deserve our gratitude and our support.

Check out our entire series explaining the science involved in the coronavirus pandemic. Sign up to receive our coronavirus update each week.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.