Infectious disease experts identify coronavirus safety measures for reopening schools

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • In a National PTA webinar hosted by Education Trust President and CEO John King Jr., also a former secretary of education under the Obama administration, infectious disease experts Dr. Tina Tan of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Dr. Wendy Armstrong of Emory University School of Medicine discussed how to safely reopen schools in the fall.
  • Armstrong stated that for schools to reopen safely, locations where there is “explosive growth” of novel coronavirus wouldn’t be a place to start, and that states would want to see “significant reductions, a downward trend for at least a few weeks.” Tan noted that 49,669 new child cases of COVID-19 were reported between June 18 and July 2, raising the number of child cases 43% from 116,176 to 165,845.
  • Among the doctors’ recommendations were social distancing of at least 3 to 6 feet, face masks for students and teachers, face shields for those unable to wear masks, plexiglass between students and cafeteria workers, adjustments for better ventilation such as open windows or outdoor classes (perhaps under a tent), and screening protocols to identify and isolate potential cases. With advanced planning in place for strict cohorting, schools may be able to avoid full shutdowns in the event of an identified infection, Armstrong and Tan said.

Dive Insight:

The question of reopening schools in the fall, and to what extent, remains highly polarized nationwide. In a participant poll during the webinar, however, 72% reported feeling very or somewhat unconfident that fully reopening in fall will be safe for students and teachers.

While data cited during the webinar shows children have significantly lower rates of infection and transmission of COVID-19 — they currently account for about 7% of all U.S. cases — there are still significant percentages of adults in school buildings who are either in vulnerable age groups or have pre-existing conditions putting them at higher risk. Some students may also have conditions that place them in that high-risk category, necessitating further planning for both groups.

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has stepped up pressure for schools to fully reopen, with President Donald Trump going so far as to threaten to withhold funds from schools failing to do so. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also received criticism following remarks to governors in which she said, “Education leaders need to examine real data and weigh risk. … Risk is involved in everything we do, from learning to ride a bike to riding a rocket into space and everything in between.” Educators on social media zeroed in on the comparison to the risks astronauts take in particular.

While it has been noted that a number of other nations such as Finland, South Africa and Israel have successfully reopened schools thus far, they have also done so with protocols including small group instruction, mandatory masks and social distancing.

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