School districts all over the U.S. are planning how they will safely open schools next fall. Depending on Covid-19 infection rates, schools in some states and districts might not open at all, at least until conditions improve. However, there will also be many schools opening when the dangers of Covid-19 are relatively low, and schools can be reasonably safe if they are careful. This is the situation state and district leaders are mainly trying to plan for.
For the past several months, I have been reading about and hearing about plans to partially open schools in the fall. These plans have involved reducing the number of students in each class to allow for social distancing among students. Reducing the numbers of students in these plans usually requires having students attend schools on alternate days (“A Day”/”B Day”), and working online at home on the non-school days. Another often-discussed plan has students attend school either before lunch or after lunch.
Such plans are likely to be educationally damaging, because it is becoming widely acknowledged that online learning is simply no match for in-person teaching, especially for disadvantaged students, who often do not have access to adequate technology for online learning. However, these plans are based on the assumption that social distancing is the key to protecting students from getting or transmitting Covid-19. Social distancing is in fact highly effective with adults, but children rarely get or transmit Covid-19, and in the rare cases when they do, they almost never die from it. Further, while it is possible to maintain social distancing during well-organized class time, it is nearly impossible to keep students apart during recess, much less waiting for busses or walking to and from school. In a news story from Sydney, Australia, an eighth grader described how his school started the school year with strict social distancing, but within a week, it completely broke down, because students found so many ways to get together at times other than class time. Based on informal stories from schools opening this spring in the Southern Hemisphere, China, Singapore, and Europe, it seems that this is a widespread problem.
Recently, a major policy document from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out squarely against plans that involve students being required to rely on distance learning all or some of the time:
“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
The AAP’s rationale depends in part on concerns that social distancing cannot be maintained, in part on the evidence that children are at very small risk for Covid-19, and in part on the health and mental health hazards of having many children staying at home for long periods, especially if adult supervision cannot be arranged. These dangers, note the AAP, include dangers of isolation, physical and sexual abuse, substance use, depression, food insecurity, and lack of physical activity.
The AAP does recommend as much social distancing as can be feasibly arranged within schools. It also notes the importance of maintaining social distancing among staff members, for example, by restricting meetings to electronic communications. It suggests masks for staff and students, especially in secondary school, as much as possible, as well as testing students and staff.
The AAP recommendations seem sensible and flexible, and would maximize effective learning time, not a minor factor. Their document provides additional details to consider at each grade level.
I do not know how influential the AAP guidelines have been, and perhaps other trusted organizations are making similar recommendations. However, districts around the country are beginning to announce their school re-opening plans, and some I have heard about are aligned with the AAP approach (i.e., fully open, with care). There are districts proposing A Day/B Day schedules, and other means of reducing the numbers of students in each class to allow social distancing, but many others are proposing that when numbers of new cases get low enough, they will fully open, and let schools do as much social distancing in class as they can within whatever space their facilities allow. Plans I’ve heard about are generally allowing parents to keep students at home if they wish, and will provide these students remote learning opportunities. I think all plans include the flexibility to closely monitor the health consequences of each plan, and be ready to change course, even to close schools again if disease rates spike for staff or students.
In the U.S., we have the luxury of being able to learn from the many schools around the world that have opened their schools before we will have to do so (or not) in August or September. These include schools in the Southern Hemisphere and East Asia, which open in our spring, as well as schools in Europe, where many countries have chosen to open schools in June and July. At this very moment, these schools are actually implementing a wide variety of the same strategies U.S. schools are just thinking about. Do other countries find out that school opening strategies emphasizing social distancing are effective? Which combinations of strategies turn out to be most effective, for both the health of students and staff and the education of students?
Our research group is collecting newspaper articles, government reports, and formal studies around the world, and we are asking teachers, parents, and students in these schools to tell us what they are seeing on the ground (we have friends all over). This effort will be less than systematic, but what we report will be timely and unvarnished. I sincerely hope that researchers are systematically studying outcomes of alternative plans. However, we also need immediate on-the-ground information on what other countries are experiencing.
The Covid-19 crisis has put educational leaders into positions of terrible responsibility for the lives of children and staff. They are seeking and heeding advice from medical and public health professionals, and have been struggling to balance educational and health needs. I think everyone owes these leaders enormous respect for the decisions they are having to make. As the summer progresses, I hope school leaders will be paying attention to the experiences of countries that have opened their schools, learning from their successes and setbacks, before implementing the best plans possible for all of our children.
This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.
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