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Still Wrestling with Whether or Not to Send Our Kids Back to School?

Difficult tradeoffs make the question of whether to open schools to in-person learning a complex one — both operationally and ethically.
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It’s been a year since COVID-19 shut down schools across the United States. Since then, some have reopened on normal schedules with full student populations; others have embraced hybrid models, teaching small groups in person and remotely; still others remain completely online, offering only virtual instruction.

Which of these modalities is right? In a recent webinar hosted by the Society for Research on Education Effectiveness — titled “Operating Schools in a Pandemic: Research to Inform Difficult Tradeoffs” — panelists Brian Gill, senior fellow at Mathematica; Dan Goldhaber, vice president of the American Institutes for Research; Douglas Harris, professor of economics at Tulane University; and Meira Levinson, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explored the question of school operational practices in a post-pandemic world. Their research, and the discussion that followed, shed light on the complexities and tensions underlying the question.

Below are takeaways from the panel, complete with guidance panelists had to offer practitioners, who continue to wrestle with their own school reopening plans this spring.   

1.    COVID-19 is not the only crisis.

There are dueling crises facing American schools, noted each of the panelists. On one side is the COVID crisis, which threatens the physical health of students, staff, and families. On the other side is the crisis of not being in school, which also threatens the health of school communities. As Harris explained, “When we are making this decision, we have to take into account the entire public health situation,” including “a public health crisis of closing the schools — the mental health issues, malnutrition, child abuse, and effect on parent employment, which of itself has an impact on public health.”

2.    Precautions diminish in-school spread.

Gill, whose research used computational simulations to predict disease spread in schools, stressed that precautions like masking are key to school safety. Even in situations where students are in school every day, full time, he explained, masking can significantly reduce in-school transmission.

“Schools using no precautions should expect five additional infections for every one infection coming in from outside. Introducing masks and other precautions, you would expect only one transmission in school for every infection coming from outside. If you couple those masks with small-group hybrid instruction, the transmission goes down to zero. Most infections coming from outside the school would not lead to any inside the school,” said Gill.

Additionally, Gill’s research suggests that the consistent use of precautions is more important to preventing spread than other measures, such as offering access to rapid response COVID testing. That’s because many affected with COVID are asymptomatic, so they won’t get tested. Since it’s impossible to prevent infections from entering the school, he said, “you have to try to stop the spread in the school.”

3.    Opening schools does not generally lead to community spread.

Panelists Goldhaber and Harris both pointed to school reopening data from their respective studies to make this assertion. Goldhaber, whose research centered on schools in Michigan and Washington, concluded that, in communities with low pre-existing case rates, there is no evidence that an increase of students attending school in person leads to an increase of COVID infections in the community. “Basically, if you’ve got low existing case rates, it is pretty safe to have schools open for in person schooling,” he explained.

Harris, who’s study looked at COVID hospitalization rates, reached the same conclusion. In communities that had experienced low COVID hospitalization rates over the summer, he found no evidence that sending students back to school impacted COVID hospitalization rates in the fall.

Additionally, both Goldhaber and Harris reminded listeners that just because students are not in school does not mean they are safe from COVID. This is because, as Harris explained, “schools are supervised environments and homes are not.” School leaders tasked with making informed decisions for their communities should consider that students may, from a public health perspective, be safer in school.

4.    To think about the question fully, you must consider the historical and social factors at play.

Most experts agree that schools can be safely opened, that remote schooling is far worse for student outcomes than in-person schooling, and that “the harms of remote schooling are distributed inequitably in ways that exacerbate pre-existing inequities,” said Levinson, acknowledging several sound reasons for reopening schools.

Yet the ethics of the decision, she stressed, are not so simple. Complex historical and social factors underlie community schooling preferences. For example, lower income families of color, painfully aware of systematic racism in the American medical establishment, may not trust middle- and upper-income school and district leaders to make decisions for their children.

Even if studies do suggest that sending students back to school is safe, added Levinson, these studies do not take into account “compounded vulnerability”: the idea that families of color are more likely to include essential workers and family members who are medically vulnerable, less likely to have access to quality healthcare, and more likely to have children who attend schools with underfunded buildings and out-of-date ventilation systems.

“Given all of this, it’s totally rational, even where schools are open, for low-income families of color to choose to keep their kids home. And on the flip side, for middle- and upper-income white families to choose to send their children to school,” said Levinson. “The ethical question we should be grappling with is, what does educational equity look like under these conditions?”