Handling Outbreaks after COVID-19 Re-openings: The Case of Germany

By guest blogger Nathan Storey*

As schools across the U.S. are beginning to reopen in hybrid or full formats, unanticipated outbreaks of COVID are bound to occur. To help schools prepare, we have been writing about strategies schools and districts in other countries have used to combat outbreaks.

In this week’s case study, I examine how Germany has responded to outbreaks and managed school reopening nationwide.

Germany

Over one month since reopening after the summer holiday, German schools are largely still open. Critics and health experts worried in the early weeks as cases in the country appeared to increase (Morris & Weber-Steinhaus, 2020), but schools have been able to continue to operate. Now students sit in classes without masks, and children are allowed to move and interact freely on the playground.

Immediately following the reopening, 31 outbreak clusters (150 cases) were identified in the first week of schooling, and 41 schools in Berlin (out of 825 schools in the region) experienced COVID-19 cases during the first two weeks of schooling, requiring quarantines, testing, and temporary closures. Similar issues occurred across the country as schools reopened in other states. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the first state to reopen, saw 800-plus students from Goethe Gymnasium in Ludwigslust sent home for quarantine after a faculty member tested positive. One hundred primary school students in Rostock district were quarantined for two weeks when a fellow student tested positive. Yet now one month later, German schools remain open. How is this possible?

Germany has focused its outbreak responses on individual student and class-level quarantines instead of shutting down entire schools. Due to active and widespread testing nationwide in the early stages of the outbreak, the country was able to get control of community-level positivity rates, paving the way for schools to reopen both in the spring, and again after summer break. Rates rose in August, but tracking enabled authorities to trace the cases to people returning from summer vacation, not from schools. At schools, outbreaks have generally been limited to one teacher or one student, who have contracted the virus from family or community members, not from within the school.

When these outbreaks occur, schools close for a day awaiting test results, but reopen quickly once affected individuals are tested negative and can return to class. At Sophie-Charlotte High School in Berlin, three days after reopening, the school received word that two students tested positive from the girls’ parents. The school in turn informed the local health authority, leading to 191 students and teachers asked to quarantine at home. Everyone was tested and two days later they received their test results. Before the week was up, school was back in session. By one estimate, due to the efficient testing and individual or class quarantines, fewer than 600 Berliner students have had to stay home for a day (out of more than 366,000 students) (Bennhold, 2020).

So far, there has been one more serious outbreak at Heinrich Hertz School in Hamburg, where a cluster of 26 students and three teachers have all received positive diagnoses, potentially infected by one of the teachers. The school moved to quarantine grades six and eight, and mask wearing rules were more strictly followed. The school and local health authorities are continuing to study the potential transmission patterns to locate the origin of the cluster.

Testing in Germany is effective because it is extensive, but targeted to those with direct contact with infections. At Heinz-Berggruen school in Berlin, a sixth grader was found to be infected after being tested even though she had no symptoms. Someone in her family had tested positive. Tracing the family member’s contacts, tests determined the source of the infection stemmed from international travel, and Heinz-Berggruen remained open, with just the infected student quarantined for two weeks. At Goethe Gymnasium in Ludwigslust, mentioned earlier, the infected teacher was sent home, and all 55 teachers were subsequently tested. The school was able to reopen less than a week later.

Some challenges have arisen. As in the US, German states are responsible for their own COVID-19 prevention measures and must make plans for the case of outbreaks. One city councilor in the Neukölln district of Berlin revealed there was confusion among parents and schools about children’s symptoms and response plans. As a result, children whose only symptoms are runny noses, for instance, have been sent home, and worries are increasing as to how effectively schools and districts will differentiate COVID-19 from flu in the winter.

The German case provides some optimism that schools can manage outbreaks and reopen successfully through careful planning and organization. Testing, contact tracing, and communication are vital, as is lowering of community positivity rates. Cases may be rising in Germany again (Loxton, 2020), but with these strategies and new national COVID management rules in place, the country is in an excellent position to address the challenge.

*Nathan Storey is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education

References

Barton, T., & Parekh, A. (2020, August 11). Reopening schools: Lessons from abroad. https://doi.org/10.26099/yr9j-3620

(2020, June 12). As Europe reopens schools, relief combines with risk. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/world/europe/reopen-schools-germany.html

Bennhold, K. (2020, August 26). Germany faces a ‘roller coaster’ as schools reopen amid Coronavirus—The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/world/europe/germany-schools-virus-reopening.html?smid=em-share

Holcombe, M. (2020, October 5). New York City to close schools in some areas as Northeast sees rise in new cases. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/05/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html

Loxton, R. (2020, October 15). What you need to know about Germany’s new coronavirus measures for autumn. The Local. https://www.thelocal.de/20201015/what-you-need-to-know-about-germanys-new-coronavirus-measures-for-autumn-and-winter

Medical Xpress. (2020, August 7). Germany closes two schools in new virus blow. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-08-germany-schools-virus.html

Morris, L., & Weber-Steinhaus, F. (2020, September 11). Schools have seen no coronavirus outbreaks since reopening a month ago in Germany—The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/covid-schools-germany/2020/09/10/309648a4-eedf-11ea-bd08-1b10132b458f_story.html

Noryskiewicz, A. (2020, August 25). Coronavirus data 2 weeks into Germany’s school year “reassures” expert. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-school-germany-no-outbreaks/

The Associated Press (2020, August 27). Europe is going back to school despite recent virus surge—Education Week. AP. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/08/27/europe-is-going-back-to-school_ap.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2&M=59665135&U=&UUID=4397669ca555af41d7b271f2dafac508

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

How Much Have Students Lost in The COVID-19 Shutdowns?

Everyone knows that school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic are having a serious negative impact on student achievement, and that this impact is sure to be larger for disadvantaged students than for others. However, how large will the impact turn out to be? This is not a grim parlor game for statisticians, but could have real meaning for policy and practice. If the losses turn out to be modest comparable to the “summer slide” we are used to (but which may not exist), then one might argue that when schools open, they might continue where they left off, and students might eventually make up their losses, as they do with summer slide. If, on the other hand, losses are very large, then we need to take emergency action.

Some researchers have used data from summer losses and from other existing data on, for example, teacher strikes, to estimate COVID losses (e.g., Kuhfeld et al., 2020). But now we have concrete evidence, from a country similar to the U.S. in most ways.

A colleague came across a study that has, I believe, the first actual data on this question. It is a recent study from Belgium (Maldonado & DeWitte, 2020) that assessed COVID-19 losses among Dutch-speaking students in that country.

The news is very bad.

The researchers obtained end-of-year test scores from all sixth graders who attend publicly-funded Catholic schools, which are attended by most students in Dutch-speaking Belgium. Sixth grade is the final year of primary school, and while schools were mostly closed from March to June due to COVID, the sixth graders were brought back to their schools in late May to prepare for and take their end-of primary tests. Before returning, the sixth graders had missed about 30% of the days in their school year. They were offered on-line teaching at home, as in the U.S.

The researchers compared the June test scores to those of students in the same schools in previous years, before COVID. After adjustments for other factors, students scored an effect size of -0.19 in mathematics, and -0.29 in Dutch (reading, writing, language). Schools serving many disadvantaged students had significantly larger losses in both subjects; inequality within the schools increased by 17% in mathematics and 20% in Dutch, and inequality between schools increased by 7% in math and 18% in Dutch.

There is every reason to expect that the situation in the U.S. will be much worse than that in Belgium. Most importantly, although Belgium had one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the world, it has largely conquered the disease by now (fall), and its schools are all open. In contrast, most U.S. schools are closed or partially closed this fall. Students are usually offered remote instruction, but many disadvantaged students lack access to technology and supervision, and even students who do have equipment and supervision do not seem to be learning much, according to anecdotal reports.

In many U.S. schools that have opened fully or partially, outbreaks of the disease are disrupting schooling, and many parents are refusing to send their children to school. Although this varies greatly by regions of the U.S., the average American student is likely to have missed several more effective months of in-person schooling by the time schools return to normal operation.

But even if average losses turn out to be no worse than those seen in Belgium, the consequences are terrifying, for Belgium as well as for the U.S. and other COVID-inflicted countries.

Effect sizes of -0.19 and -0.29 are very large. From the Belgian data on inequality, we might estimate that for disadvantaged students (those in the lowest 25% of socioeconomic status), losses could have been -0.29 in mathematics and -0.39 in Dutch. What do we have in our armamentarium that is strong enough to overcome losses this large?

In a recent blog, I compared average effect sizes from studies of various solutions currently being proposed to remedy students’ losses from COVID shutdowns: Extended school days, after-school programs, summer school, and tutoring. Only tutoring, both one-to-one and one-to-small group, in reading and mathematics, had an effect size larger than +0.10. In fact, there are several one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring models with effect sizes of +0.40 or more, and averages are around +0.30. Research in both reading and mathematics has shown that well-trained teaching assistants using structured tutoring materials or software can obtain outcomes as good as those obtained by certified teachers as tutors. On the basis of these data, I’ve been writing about a “Marshall Plan” to hire thousands of tutors in every state to provide tutoring to students scoring far below grade level in reading and math, beginning with elementary reading (where the evidence is strongest).

I’ve also written about national programs in the Netherlands and in England to provide tutoring to struggling students. Clearly, we need a program of this kind in the U.S. And if our scores are like the Belgian scores, we need it as quickly as possible. Students who have fallen far below grade level cannot be left to struggle without timely and effective assistance, powerful enough to bring them at least to where they would have been without the COVID school closures. Otherwise, these students are likely to lose motivation, and to suffer lasting damage. An entire generation of students, harmed through no fault of their own, cannot be allowed to sink into failure and despair.

References

Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05

Maldonado, J. E., & DeWitte, K. (2020). The effect of school closures on standardized student test outcomes.Leuven, Belgium: University of Leuven.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Learning from International Schools Part II: Outbreaks after COVID-19 Re-openings: The Case of Israel

By guest blogger Nathan Storey*

The summer is over and fall semester is underway across the United States. Schools are reopening and students are back in the classroom, either virtually or in the flesh. Up to now, the focus of discussion has been about whether and how to open schools: in person, using remote instruction, or some mix of the two. But as schools actually open, those with any element of in-person teaching are starting to worry about how they will handle any outbreaks, should they occur. In fact, many countries that opened their schools before the U.S. have actually experienced outbreaks, and this blog focuses on learning from the tragic experience of Israel.  

In in-person schooling, outbreaks are all but inevitable. “We have to be realistic…if we are reopening schools, there will be some Covid,” says Dr. Benjamin Linas, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University (Nierenberg & Pasick, 2020). Even though U.S. schools have already reopened, it is not too late to put outbreak plans into place in order to stem any future outbreaks and allow schools to remain in session.

Israel

On Thursday, September 17, Israel’s school system was shut down due to rising positivity rates; 5,523 new cases were recorded in one day prior to the decision, in a country about one fortieth the size of the U.S. The closures are due to last until October 11, though special education and youth-at-risk programs are continuing. The spike in COVID cases reported by health officials centered around children 10 years of age and up. “The government made the wrong decision, against professional recommendations,” COVID commissioner and Professor Ronni Gamzu wrote in a letter to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Education Minister Yoav Gallant.

Israel has been a cautionary tale since reopening schools in May. By July, 977 students and teachers were diagnosed with COVID, 22,520 had been quarantined, and 393 schools and kindergartens had been closed by the Education Ministry (Kershner & Belluck, 2020; Tarnopolsky, 2020). At the beginning of September, 30 “red” cities and neighborhoods were placed under lockdown due to spikes. Almost 4,000 students and over 1,600 teachers are currently in quarantine, while more than 900 teachers and students have been diagnosed with the virus (Savir, 2020).

Schools initially reopened following a phased approach and using social distancing and mask protocols. Students with diagnosed family members were not allowed back, and older staff members and those at risk were told not to return to the classroom. It seemed as if they were doing everything right. But then, a heat wave wiped all the progress away.

Lifting the face mask requirement for four days and allowing schools to shut their windows (so they could air condition) offered new opportunities for the virus to run rampant. An outbreak at Gymnasia Rehavia, a high school in Jerusalem, turned into the largest single-school outbreak seen so far, soon reaching to students’ homes and communities. Outbreaks also appeared outside of the Jerusalem area, including in an elementary school in Jaffa. Reflecting on the nationwide spread of the virus, researchers have estimated that as much as 47% of the total new infections in the whole of Israel could be traced to Israeli schools (Tarnopolsky, 2020), introduced to schools by adult teachers and employees, and spread by students, particularly middle-school aged children.

This crisis serves to illustrate just how important it is for education leaders, teachers, and students to remain vigilant in prevention efforts. The Israeli schools largely had the right ideas to ensure prevention. Some challenges existed, particularly related to fitting students into classrooms while maintaining six feet separation given large class sizes (in some cases, classrooms of 500 square feet have to hold as many as 38 students). But by relaxing their distancing regulations, the schools opened students, staff, and communities to a major outbreak.

Schools responded with quarantining individual students, classmates of infected students, teachers, and staff; and when a second unconnected case was detected, schools would close for two weeks. But Israel did not place a priority on contact tracing and testing. Students and staff were tested following outbreaks, but they experienced long wait times to take the test, increasing the opportunities for spread. In the case of one school outbreak, Professor Eli Waxman of Weizmann Institute of Science reported that school officials could not identify which buses students took to reach school (Kershner & Belluck, 2020). Having this type of information is vital for tracing who infected students may have come into contact with, especially for younger students who may not be able to list all those with whom they’ve been in close contact.

Before the fall semester began, it looked as if Israel had learned from their previous mistakes. The Education Ministry disseminated new regulations adapted to the local level based on infection rates, and once more planned a phased reopening approach starting with K-4th grades, followed by middle- and high-school students, who were set to follow a hybrid remote and in-person instruction approach. Schools planned to use plastic barriers to separate students in the classroom. Education leaders were to develop a guidebook to support the transition from in-person to distance learning and procedures to maintain distancing during celebrations or graduation ceremonies.

These precautions and adaptive plans suggested that Israel had learned from the mistakes made in the summer. Upon reopening, a new lesson was learned. Schools cannot reopen in a sustainable and long-term manner if community positivity rates are not under control.

*Nathan Storey is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education

References

Couzin-Frankel, J., Vogel, G., & Weil, M. (2020, July 7). School openings across globe suggest ways to keep coronavirus at bay, despite outbreaks. Science | AAAS. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/07/school-openings-across-globe-suggest-ways-keep-coronavirus-bay-despite-outbreaks

Jaffe-Hoffman, M. (2020, September 16). 5,500 new coronavirus cases, as gov’t rules to close schools Thursday. The Jerusalem Post. https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/coronavirus-4973-new-cases-in-the-last-day-642338

Kauffman, J. (2020, July 29). Israel’s hurried school reopenings serve as a cautionary tale. The World from PRX. https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-07-29/israels-hurried-school-reopenings-serve-cautionary-tale

Kershner, I., & Belluck, P. (2020, August 4). When Covid subsided, Israel reopened its schools. It didn’t go well. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/world/middleeast/coronavirus-israel-schools-reopen.html

Nierenberg, A., & Pasick, A. (2020, September 16). For school outbreaks, it’s when, not if—The New York Times. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/us/for-school-outbreaks-its-when-not-if.html

Savir, A. (2020, September 1). 2.4 million Israeli students go back to school in shadow of COVID-19. J-Wire. https://www.jwire.com.au/2-4-million-israeli-students-go-back-to-school-in-shadow-of-covid-19/

Schwartz, F., & Lieber, D. (2020, July 14). Israelis fear schools reopened too soon as Covid-19 cases climb. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/israelis-fear-schools-reopened-too-soon-as-covid-19-cases-climb-11594760001

Tarnopolsky, N. (2020, July 14). Israeli data show school openings were a disaster that wiped out lockdown gains. The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/israeli-data-show-school-openings-were-a-disaster-that-wiped-out-lockdown-gains

Photo credit: Talmoryair / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Learning from International Schools: Outbreaks after COVID-19 Re-openings: The Case of the United Kingdom

By guest blogger Nathan Storey, Johns Hopkins University*

For much of the summer, U.S. education leaders and media have questioned how to safely reopen schools to students and teachers. Districts have struggled to put together concrete plans for how to structure classes, how much of the instruction would be in person, how to maintain social distancing in the classroom, and how to minimize health risks.

Most school districts have focused on preventing outbreaks through masks and social distancing, among other measures. However, this has left a gap—what happens to these well-thought-out plans if and when there’s an outbreak? While many school districts (including 12 of the 15 largest in the United States) have opted to start schooling remotely, many others plan to or have already restarted in-person schooling, often without detailed prevention and response plans in place.

For those districts committed to in-person schooling, outbreaks in at least some schools are all but inevitable. Community positivity rates within the United States remain high, with some states experiencing positivity rates of up to 5.4% (CDC, 2020), compared to 2.3% in Scotland or 0.8% across the entire United Kingdom (JHU, 2020). The image of students without masks packed into the hallways of a Georgia school have already spread nationwide. It is clearly important to put these plans into place as soon as possible in order to stem any outbreaks and allow schools to remain in session.

In a series of case studies, I will examine the experiences of how other countries with similar education systems dealt with outbreaks in their schools and share lessons learned for the United States.

United Kingdom

Schools in England and Wales finally reopened last week for the fall semester, but Scottish schools reopened the week of August 10. Outbreaks in Scotland have been minimal, but a cluster of school outbreaks cropped up in the Glasgow region, most notably at Bannerman High School. Affected schools soon closed for one week following the positive tests, but students who tested positive remained at home in self-isolation for 14 days.

What makes this outbreak notable is that through testing of students and community members, researchers were able to trace the outbreak to a cluster of infections amongst senior managers at McVities biscuit factory, also in Glasgow. Having successfully traced the infections to this source, education leaders and researchers were able to determine that cases were not being transmitted within schools, and put into effect appropriate isolation procedures for potentially infected students and faculty.

Testing and contact tracing were conducted first during the spring and summer months when schools first reopened in the UK, following the national shutdown in March. Researchers (Ismail et al., 2020) were able to determine sources of outbreaks and prevalence amongst students and faculty, finding that transmission was less common within schools, providing crucial information to improve COVID understanding and informing quarantine and school lockdown protocols in the country.

Scotland has put into place a strong contact tracing protocol, coupled with self-isolation, social distancing, and more intensive hygiene protocols. Scientists from England have urged weekly testing of teachers, as well as “test and trace” protocols, but the schools minister, Nick Gibb, instead committed to testing of symptomatic individuals only. Researcher Michael Fischer recently launched the COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network, hoping to create a network of laboratories across the UK using basic equipment common in most labs (specifically, a polymerase chain reaction or PCR machine) to provide rapid testing. Eventually, as many as 1,000 labs could each do 800 tests a day, providing rapid response to COVID-19 tests and enabling more effective contact tracing and allowing schools to isolate students and staff members without requiring entire schools to be shut down.

Another means of accelerating testing and contact tracing is through group or pooled testing. One scientist in England pointed to this form of testing—in which multiple individuals’ samples are pooled together and tested simultaneously, with subsequent individual tests in the event of a positive test result—as a means of providing quick testing even if testing materials are limited. This could be particularly useful for schools implementing clustered classrooms or educational pods, keeping students together throughout the day and limiting contact with other students and staff.

Through careful and thorough testing and contact tracing, as exemplified by the United Kingdom’s efforts, coupled with careful social distancing and preventative measures, United States school districts in areas with low positivity rates, comparable to those in the United Kingdom, could more systematically address outbreaks, avoiding entire school shutdowns, which can be disruptive to education for students. Preventative measures alone are not likely to be enough to get students and staff through what promises to be a difficult school year. These outbreak responsive systems are likely to be necessary as well.

References

Brazell, E. (2020, April 2). Scientist donates £1,000,000 to massively increase UK coronavirus testing. Metro. https://metro.co.uk/2020/04/02/scientist-donates-1000000-massively-increase-uk-coronavirus-testing-12499729/

CDC. (2020, September 4). COVIDView, Key Updates for Week 33. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/index.html

Davis, N. (2020, August 10). Scientists urge routine Covid testing when English schools reopen. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/10/scientists-urge-routine-covid-testing-when-english-schools-reopen

Duffy, E. (2020, August 19). Scots school closes with immediate effect after multiple confirmed cases of Covid-19. The Herald. https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18662461.kingspark-school-dundee-school-closes-multiple-cases-covid-19-confirmed/

Government of United Kingdom. (2020, September 8). Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK: UK Summary. https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/

Ismail, S. A., Saliba, V., Bernal, J. L., Ramsay, M. E., & Ladhani, S. N. (2020). SARS-CoV-2 infection and transmission in educational settings: Cross-sectional analysis of clusters and outbreaks in England (pp. 1–28). Public Health England. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.08.21.20178574

Johns Hopkins University. (2020, September 8). Daily Testing Trends in the US – Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/testing/individual-states

Macpherson, R. (2020, August 16). Coronavirus Scotland: Another pupil at Bannerman High School in Glasgow tests positive as cluster hits 12 cases – The Scottish Sun. https://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/news/5937611/coronavirus-scotland-bannerman-high-school-covid19/

Palmer, M. (2020, April 1). Call for small UK labs to embrace Dunkirk spirit and produce Covid-19 tests. Sifted. https://sifted.eu/articles/uk-labs-coronavirus-testing/

*Nathan Storey is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Healing Covid-19’s Educational Losses: What is the Evidence?

I’ve written several blogs (here, here, here, here, here, and here) on what schools can do when they finally open permanently, to remedy what will surely be serious harm to the educational progress of millions of students. Without doubt, the students who are suffering the most from lengthy school closures are disadvantaged students, who are most likely to lack access to remote technology or regular support when their schools have been closed.

 Recently, there have been several articles circulated in the education press (e.g., Sawchuk, 2020) and newsletters laying out the options schools might consider to greatly improve the achievement of students who lost the most, and are performing far behind grade level.

The basic problem is that if schools simply start off with usual teaching for each grade level, this may be fine for students at or just below grade level, but for those who are far below level, this is likely to add catastrophe to catastrophe. Students who cannot read the material they are being taught, or who lack the prerequisite skills for their grade level, will experience failure and frustration. So the challenge is to provide students who are far behind with intensive, additional services likely to quickly accelerate their progress, so that they can then profit from ordinary, at-grade-level lessons.

In the publications I’ve seen, there have been several solutions frequently put forward. I thought this might be a good time to review the most common prescriptions in terms of their evidence basis in rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental research.

Extra Time

One proposal is to extend the school day or school year to provide additional time for instruction. This sounds logical; if the problem is time out of school, let’s add time in school.

The effects of extra time depend, of course, on what schools provide during that additional time. Simply providing more clock hours in which typical instruction is provided makes little difference. For example, in a large Florida study (Figlio, Holden, & Ozek, 2018), high-poverty schools were given a whole hour every day for a year, for additional reading instruction. This had a small impact on reading achievement (ES=+0.09) at a cost of about $800 per student, or $300,000-$400,000 per school. Also, in a review of research on secondary reading programs by Baye, Lake, Inns & Slavin (2019), my colleagues and I examined whether remedial programs were more effective if they were provided during additional time (one class period a day more than what the control group received for one or more years) or if they were provided during regular class time (the same amount of time the control group also received). The difference was essentially zero. The extra time did not matter. What did matter was what the schools provided (here and here).

After-School Programs

Some sources suggest providing after-school programs for students experiencing difficulties. A review of research on this topic by Kidron & Lindsay (2014) examined effects of after-school programs on student achievement in reading and mathematics. The effects were essentially zero. One problem is that students often did not attend regularly, or were poorly motivated when they did attend.

Summer School

As noted in a recent blog, positive effects of summer school were found only when intensive phonics instruction was provided in grades K or 1, but even in these cases, positive effects did not last to the following spring. Summer school is also very expensive.

Tutoring

By far the most effective approach for students struggling in reading or mathematics is tutoring (see blogs here, here, and here). Outcomes for one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring average +0.20 to +0.30 in both reading and mathematics, and there are several particular programs that routinely report outcomes of +0.40 or more. Using teaching assistants with college degrees as tutors can make tutoring very cost-effective, especially in small-group programs.

Whole-School Reforms

There are a few whole-school reforms that can have substantial impacts on reading and mathematics achievement. A recent review of our elementary school reform model, Success for All (Cheung et al., 2020), found an average effect size of +0.24 for all students across 17 studies, and an average of +0.54 for low achievers.

A secondary reform model called BARR has reported positive reading and mathematics outcomes for ninth graders (T. Borman et al., 2017)

Conclusion

Clearly, something needs to be done about students returning to in-person education who are behind grade level in reading and/or mathematics. But resources devoted to helping these students need to be focused on approaches proven to work. This is not the time to invest in plausible but unproven programs. Students need the best we have that has been repeatedly shown to work.

References

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly, 54 (2), 133-166.

Borman, T., Bos, H., O’Brien, B. C., Park, S. J., & Liu, F. (2017). i3 BARR validation study impact findings: Cohorts 1 and 2. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhang, T., Neitzel, A., & Slavin, R. E. (2020). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Manuscript submitted for publication. (Contact us for a copy.)

Figlio, D. N., Holden, K. L., & Ozek, U. (2018). Do students benefit from longer school days? Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida’s additional hour of literacy instruction. Economics of Education Review, 67, 171-183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2018.06.003

Kidron, Y., & Lindsay, J. (2014). The effects of increased learning time on student academic and nonacademic outcomes: Findings from a meta‑analytic review (REL 2014-015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.

Sawchuk, S. (2020, August 26). Overcoming Covid-19 learning loss. Education Week, 40 (2), 6.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

The Summer Slide: Fact or Fiction?

One of the things that “everyone knows” from educational research is that while advantaged students gain in achievement over the summer, disadvantaged students decline. However, the rate of gain during school time, from fall to spring, is about the same for advantaged and disadvantaged students. This pattern has led researchers such as Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson (2007) and Allington & McGill-Franzen (2018) to conclude that differential gain/loss over the summer completely explains the gap in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Middle class students are reading, going to the zoo, and going to the library, while disadvantaged students are less likely to do these school-like things.

The “summer slide,” as it’s called, has come up a lot lately, because it is being used to predict the amount of loss disadvantaged students will experience as a result of Covid-19 school closures. If disadvantaged students lose so much ground over 2 ½ months of summer vacation, imagine how much they will lose after five or seven or nine months (to January, 2021)!  Remarkably precise-looking estimates of how far behind students will be when school finally re-opens for all are circulating widely. These estimates are based on estimates of the losses due to “summer slide,” so they are naturally called “Covid slide.”

I am certain that most students, and especially disadvantaged students, are in fact losing substantial ground due to the long school closures. The months of school not attended, coupled with the apparent ineffectiveness of remote teaching for most students, do not bode well for a whole generation of children. But this is abnormal. Ordinary summer vacation is normal. Does ordinary summer vacation lead to enough “summer slide” to explain substantial gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students?

 I’m pretty sure it does not. In fact, let me put this in caps:

SUMMER SLIDE IS PROBABLY A MYTH.

Recent studies of summer slide, mostly using NWEA MAP data from millions of children, are finding results that call summer slide into question (Kuhfeld, 2019; Quinn et al., 2016) or agree that it happens but that summer losses are similar for advantaged and disadvantaged students (Atteberry & McEachin, 2020). However, hiding in plain sight is the most conclusive evidence of all: NWEA’s table of norms for the MAP, a benchmark assessment widely used to monitor student achievement. The MAP is usually given three times a year. In the chart below, calculated from raw data on the NWEA website (teach.mapnwea.org), I compute the gains from fall to winter, winter to spring, and spring to fall (the last being “summer”). These are for grades 1 to 5 reading.

GradeFall to winterWinter to springSpring to fall (summer)
19.925.550.95
28.854.371.05
37.283.22-0.47
45.832.33-0.35
54.641.86-0.81
Mean7.303.470.07

NWEA’s chart is probably accurate. But it suggests something that cannot possibly be true. No, it’s not that students gain less in reading each year. That’s true. It is that students gain more than twice as much from fall to winter as they do from winter to spring. That cannot be true.Why would students gain so much more in the first semester than the second? One might argue that they are fresher in the fall, or something like that. But double the gain, in every elementary grade? That cannot be right.

 Here is my explanation. The fall score is depressed.

The only logical explanation for extraordinary fall-to-winter gain is that many students score poorly on the September test, but rapidly recover.

I think most elementary teachers already know this. Their experience is that students score very low when they return from summer vacation, but this is not their true reading level. For three decades, we have noticed this in our Success for All program, and we routinely recommend that teachers place students in our reading sequence not where they score in September, but no lower than they scored last spring. (If students score higher in September than they did on a spring test, we do use the September score).

What is happening, I believe, is that students do not forget how to read, they just momentarily forget how to take tests. Or perhaps teachers do not invest time in preparing students to take a pretest, which has few if any consequences, but they do prepare them for winter and spring tests. I do not know for sure how it happens, but I do know for sure, from experience, that fall scores tend to understate students’ capabilities, often by quite a lot. And if the fall score is artificially or temporarily low, then the whole summer loss story is wrong.

Another indicator that fall scores are, shall we say, a bit squirrely, is the finding by both Kuhfield (2019) and Atteberry & McEachin (2020) that there is a consistent negative correlation between school year gain and summer loss. That is, the students who gain the most from fall to spring lose the most from spring to fall. How can that be? What must be going on is just that students who get fall scores far below their actual ability quickly recover, and then make what appear to be fabulous gains from fall to spring. But that same temporarily low fall score gives them a summer loss. So of course there is a negative correlation, but it does not have any practical meaning.

So far, I’ve only been talking about whether there is a summer slide at all, for all students taken together. It may still be true, as found in the Heyns (1978) and Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson (2007) studies, that disadvantaged students are not gaining as much as advantaged students do over the summer. Recent studies by Atteberry & McEachin (2020) and Kuhfeld (2019) do not find much differential summer gain/loss according to social class. One the other hand, it could be that disadvantaged students are more susceptible to forgetting how to take tests. Or perhaps disadvantaged students are more likely to attend schools that put little emphasis on doing well on a September test that has no consequences for the students or the school. But it is unlikely they are truly forgetting how to read. The key point is that if fall tests are unreliable indicators of students’ actual skills, if they are just temporary dips that do not indicate what students can do, then taking them seriously in determining whether or not “summer slide” exists is not sensible.

By the way, before you begin thinking that while summer slide may not happen in reading but it must exist in math or other subjects, prepare to be disappointed again. The NWEA MAP scores for math, science, and language usage follow very similar patterns to those in reading.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but if I am, then we’d better start finding out about the amazing fall-to-winter surge, and see how we can make winter-to-spring gains that large! But if you don’t have a powerful substantive explanation for the fall-to-winter surge, you’re going to have to accept that summer slide isn’t a major factor in student achievement.

References

Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72(2), 167-180.  doi:10.1177/000312240707200202

Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (Eds.). (2018). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Atteberry, A., & McEachin, A. (2020). School’s out: The role of summers in understanding achievement disparities. American Educational Research Journal https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831220937285

Heyns, B. (1978). Summer learning and the effect of schooling. New York: Academic Press.

Kuhfeld, M (2019). Surprising new evidence on summer learning loss. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (11), 25-29.

Quinn, D., Cook, N., McIntyre, J., & Gomez, C. J. (2016). Seasonal dynamics of academic achievement inequality by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity: Updating and extending past research with new national data. Educational Researcher, 45 (8), 443-453.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

 Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Could Intensive Education Rescue Struggling Readers?

Long, long ago, I heard about a really crazy idea. Apparently, a few private high schools were trying a scheduling plan in which instead of having students take all of their subjects every day, they would take one subject at a time for a month or six weeks. The idea was that with a total concentration on one subject, with no time lost in changing classes, students could make astonishing progress. At the end of each week, they could see the progress they’d made, and really feel learning happening.

Algebra? Solved!

French? Accompli!

Of course, I could not talk anyone into trying this. I almost got a Catholic school to try it, but when they realized that kids would have to take religion all day, that was that.

However, in these awful days, with schools nationwide closing for months due to Covid, I was thinking about a way to use a similar concept with students who have fallen far behind, or actually with any students who are far behind grade level for any reason.

What happens now with students who are far behind in, say, reading, is that they get a daily period of remedial instruction, or special education. For most of them, despite the very best efforts of dedicated teachers, this is not very effective. Day after day after day, they get instruction that at best moves them forward at a slow, steady pace. But after a while, students lose any hope of truly catching up, and when you lose hope, you lose motivation, and no one learns without motivation.

blog_8-13-20_tripletutor_333x500So here is my proposal. What if students who were far behind could enroll in a six-week intensive service designed to teach them to read, no matter what? They would attend an intensive class, perhaps all day, in which they receive a promise: this time, you’ll make it. No excuses. This is the best chance you’ll ever have. Students would be carefully assessed, including their vision and hearing as well as their reading levels. They would be assigned to one-to-small group or, if necessary, one-to-one instruction for much of the day. There might be music or sports or other activities between sessions, but imagine that students got three 40-minute tutoring sessions a day, on content exactly appropriate to their needs. The idea, as in intensive education, would be to enable the students to feel the thrill of learning, to see unmistakable gains in a day, extraordinary gains in a week. The tutoring could be to groups of four for most students, but students with the most difficult, most unusual problems could receive one-to-one tutoring.

The ideal time to do this intensive tutoring would be summer school. Actually, this has been done in a few studies. Schacter & Jo (2005) provided intensive phonics instruction to students after first grade in three disadvantaged schools in Los Angeles. The seven-week experience increased their test scores by an effect size of +1.16, compared to similar students who did not have the opportunity to attend summer school. Zvoch & Stevens (2015) also provided intensive phonics instruction in small groups in a 5-week reading summer school. The students were disadvantaged kindergartners and first graders in a medium-sized city in the Pacific Northwest. The effect sizes were +0.60 for kindergarten, +0.78 for first grade.

Summer is not the only good time for intensive reading instruction. Reading is so important that it would be arguably worthwhile to provide intensive six-week instruction (with time out for mathematics) and breaks for, say, sports and music, during the school year.

If intensive education were as effective as ordinary 40-minute daily tutoring, it might be no more expensive. A usual course of tutoring is 20 weeks, so triple tutoring sessions for six weeks would cost almost the same as 18 weeks of ordinary tutoring. In other words, if intensive tutoring is more effective than ordinary tutoring, then the additional benefits might cost little or nothing.

Intensive tutoring would make particular sense to try during summer, 2021, when millions of students will still be far behind in reading because of the lengthy school closures they will have experienced. I have no idea whether intensive tutoring will be more or less effective than ordinary one-to-small group tutoring (which is very, very effective; see here and here). Planfully concentrating tutoring during an intensive period of time certainly seems worth a try!

References

Schacter, J., & Jo, B. (2005). Learning when school is not in session: A reading summer day-camp intervention to improve the achievement of exiting first-grade students who are economically disadvantaged. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 158-169. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2005.00260.x

Zvoch, K., & Stevens, J. J. (2013). Summer school effects in a randomized field trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 24-32. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.05.002

Photo credit: American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action, (CC BY-NC 4.0)

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

 

“Am I Even Real Anymore?” The Truth About Virtual Learning

“My 8-year-old was sobbing last night because she misses playing with her friends at recess, she misses her teacher, and she is worried that everyone has forgotten her. At one point, she asked me if she was even real anymore.”

This appeared in a letter that ran in the July 25th Baltimore Sun. It was written by Jenny Elliott, a Catonsville mother of elementary students. In it, Ms. Elliott tells how she and her husband have been unable to get their kids to do the virtual learning assignments her kids’ school has assigned.

“(Virtual learning) just doesn’t work for them. I can’t physically force them to stare at their devices and absorb information. We’ve yelled, we’ve begged, we’ve made a game of it…we’ve tried everything we can think of. We failed.”

One of the most poignant parts of Ms. Elliott’s letter is her feeling that everyone knows that virtual learning isn’t working for most kids, but no one wants to say so.

“I am begging someone to speak honestly about virtual learning. I have only the perspective of an elementary school parent, but I have to imagine this negatively impacts children at all levels. The communication coming (from authorities) all over the country…it feels delusional.”

Ms. Elliott expresses enormous guilt. “As a parent, I’ve had to see this every day for the last five months, and every day I feel crushing guilt that I can’t make any of it better.” She expresses gratitude for the efforts of her kids’ teachers, and feels sympathy for them. (“I love you, teachers. I am so sorry this is your reality too.”)

blog_8-6-20_computerbordom_500x338 Ms. Elliott notes that if anyone should be able to make virtual learning work, it should be her family: “…a secure living situation, two parents, food security, access to high-speed internet, access to an internet-powered device, etc.” I might add that Catonsville is in suburban Baltimore County, which has a national reputation for its substantial investments in technology over many years.

Since I have written many blogs about schools’ responses to the Covid school closures, I’ve been expecting a letter like this. Informally, my colleagues and I have been chatting to teachers and parents we know with kids in school. Almost every single one tells a story like Ms. Elliott’s. Highly educated parents, plenty of technology, tech-savvy kids, capable and hard-working teachers, all different ages, it does not seem to matter. Teachers and parents alike refer to motivated and successful students who log on and then pay no attention. The kids are  communicating on a different device with their friends, playing games, reading, whatever. There are kids who are engaged with virtual learning, but very few that we’ve heard about.

Much of the reporting about virtual learning has emphasized the lack of access to the Internet, and districts are spending billions to provide devices and improve access. There is a lot of talk about how school closures are increasing learning gaps because disadvantaged students lack access to the Internet, as though school closures are only a problem for disadvantaged students. But if Ms. Elliott is representative of many parents, and I’m sure she is, the problem is far larger than that of students who lack access to technology.

Everyone involved with schools seems to know this, but they do not want to talk about it. There seems to be a giant, unspoken pall of guilt that keeps the reality of what is happening in virtual learning from being discussed openly. Parents feel guilty because they feel deficient if they are not able to get their kids to respond to virtual learning. Teachers feel guilty because they don’t want to admit that they are not able to get more of their students to pay attention. School administrators want to be perceived to be doing something, anything, to combat the educational effects of extended school closures, so while they do talk about the need to obtain more devices and offer teachers more professional development, they do not like to talk about the kids who do have devices, but don’t do much with them. They promise that things will soon be better, with more devices, more professional development, and better lessons turning the tide. Ms. Elliott is sympathetic, but doubtful. “I appreciate those efforts and wholeheartedly believe the educational system is doing the absolute best they can…but I can’t pretend that the virtual school plans will work for our kids.”

Ms. Elliott states at the beginning of her letter that she has no solution to suggest, but she just wants the truth to be known. I have no sure-fire solutions myself. But I do know one thing. Any workable solutions there may be will have to begin with a firm understanding of what is really happening in schools using virtual learning.

In most of the U.S., opening schools in August or September should be out of the question. The rates of new Covid cases remain far too high, and no amount of social distancing inside schools can be safe for students or staff when there are so many carriers of the disease outside of schools. The only true solution, until cures or vaccines are widely available, is to return to the one thing that has worked throughout the world: mandating universal use of masks, shutting down businesses that put people close to each other, and so on. This is the only thing that saved China and South Korea and Italy and Spain and New York City, and it is the only solution now. The faster we return to what works, the sooner we can fully open schools, and then start the long process of healing the terrible damage being done to our children’s learning.

I am not suggesting giving up on virtual learning. If schools will be closed for a long time, it is all we have. But I am pessimistic about trying to fix the current approach to virtual learning. I think we could use all those computers and educators online to much greater effort by providing online tutoring to individuals and small groups, for example, rather than trying to create a classroom community out of children working from home. Perhaps there are ways other than tutoring to use online instruction effectively, but I do not know them. In any case, we need immediate investment in development and evaluation to find the most effective and cost-effective solutions possible, while we wait for a safe time to open schools. We’ll all get through this, one way or the other, but in order to minimize the negative impact on student learning, let’s start with the truth, and then build and use the evidence of what works.

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

The Case for Optimism

In the July 16 New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an article with a provocative title: “We Interrupt This Gloom to Offer…Hope.”

Kristof’s basic point is that things have gotten so awful in the U.S. that, in response, with any luck, we could soon be able to make progress on many issues that we could never make in normal times. He gives the example of the Great Depression, which made possible Social Security, rural electrification, and much more. And the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which led to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Could the crises we are going through right now have even more profound and long-lasting consequences? The Covid-19 pandemic is exposing the lack of preparedness and the profound inequities in our health systems that everyone knew about, but that our political systems could not fix. The Black Lives Matter movement is not new, but George Floyd’s killing and many other outrages caught on video are fueling substantial changes in attitudes among people of all races, making genuine progress possible. The shockingly unequal impacts of both Covid itself and its economic impacts are tearing away complacency about the different lives that are possible for rich and poor. The attacks by federal troops on peaceful demonstrators in Washington and Portland are likely to drive Americans to get back to the core principles in our Constitution, ones we too often take for granted. When this is all over, how can we just return to the way things were?

What is happening in education is appalling. Our inept response to the Covid pandemic makes it literally murder to open schools in many parts of the country. Some districts are already announcing that they will not open until January. With schools closed, or only partially open, students will be expected to learn remote, online lessons, which author Doug Lemov aptly describes as “like teaching through a keyhole.”

The statistics say that a tenth or a quarter or a half of students, depending on where they are, are not logging into online learning even once. For disadvantaged students and students in rural areas, this is due in part to a lack of access to equipment or broadband, and school districts are collectively spending billions to increase access to computers. But talk to just about any teacher or parent or student, including the most conscientious students with the best technology and the most supportive parents. They are barely going through the motions. The utter failure of online education in this crisis is a crisis in itself.

The ultimate result of the school closures and the apparent implosion of online teaching is that when schools do open, students will have fallen far behind. Gaps between middle class and disadvantaged students, awful in the best of times, will grow even larger.

So how can I possibly be optimistic?

blog_7-30-20_optimismrainbow_500x333

There are several things that I believe are highly likely to occur in the coming months in our country. First, once students are back in school, we will find out how far behind they have fallen, and we will have to declare an educational emergency, with adequate funding to match the seriousness of the problems. Then the following will have to happen.

  1. Using federal money, states and districts will contract with local agencies to hire an army of tutors to work individually or in small groups with struggling students, especially in elementary reading and mathematics, where there are many proven programs ready to go. Frankly, this is no longer optional. There is nothing nearly as effective as one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Nothing else can be put in place as quickly with as high a likelihood of working. As I’ve reported in previous blogs, England and the Netherlands have already announced national tutoring programs to combat the achievement gaps being caused by school closures. My own state, Maryland, has recently announced a $100 million program to provide tutoring statewide. Millions of recent college graduates will be without jobs in the recession that is certain to come. The best of them will be ideal candidates to serve as tutors.
  2. America is paying a heavy price for ignoring its scientists, and science itself. Although there has been rapid growth in the evidence base and in the availability of proven programs, educational research and proven programs are still paid little attention in school policies and practices. In the education crisis we face, perhaps this will change. Might it be possible that schools could receive incentive funding to enable them to adopt proven programs known to make substantial differences in learning from Pre-K to 12th grade and beyond? In normal times, people can ignore evidence about what works in reading or mathematics or science or social-emotional learning. But these are not normal times. No school should be forced to use any particular program, but government can use targeted funding and encouragement to enable schools to select and effectively implement programs of their choice.
  3. In emergencies, government often accelerates funding for research and development to quickly find solutions for pressing national problems. This is happening now as labs nationwide are racing to develop Covid vaccines and cures, for example. As we declare an education emergency, we should be investing in research and development to respond to high-priority needs. For example, there are several proven programs for elementary students struggling in reading or mathematics. Yet we have few if any proven tutoring programs for middle or high schools. Middle school tutoring methods have been proven effective in England, so we know this can work, but we need to adapt and evaluate English models for the U.S., or evaluate existing U.S. programs that are promising but unevaluated, or develop new models for the U.S. If we are wise, we will do all three of these things. In the education emergency we face, it is not the time to fiddle around the edges. It is time to use our national innovative capacity to identify and solve big problems.

If America does declare a national education emergency, if it does mobilize an army of tutors using proven programs, if it invests in creating and evaluating new, ever more effective programs to solve educational problems and incentivizes schools to use them, an amazing thing will happen. In addition to solving our immediate problems, we will have learned how to make our schools much more effective, even in normal times.

Yes, things will someday get back to normal. But if we do the right things to solve our crises, we will not just be returning to normal. We will be returning to better. Maybe a lot better.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Let’s Learn from Peer Countries How to Open Schools Safely

*Guest blogger Nathan Storey is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University

The time to develop and finalize plans for the reopening of U.S. schools in the fall is closing. Labor Day is little more than a month away. How are states to determine the best methods of reopening schools? What issues should receive the most attention when developing plans? Students’ physical health and safety is always a concern in schools, but teachers, administrators, and staff are particularly at risk, especially staff over 50 and those with certain health conditions. Many school districts are grappling with this question.

One potential source of information about school opening may be the experiences of other countries that have already opened their schools.  Fortunately, a number of other countries have been conducting a natural experiment, whether they think of it that way or not, and the United States has the opportunity to draw important lessons from their experiences in order to create plans for safe instruction. Increasing numbers of schools have decided to close this fall, in light of the high and rising rates of new cases in most states. However, when schools do open, we should learn from the experiences of peer nations.

blog_7-23-20_monalisasanitized_336x500

While we wait for more data to come in, the experiences of other nations demonstrate what approaches may work best and what approaches are too expensive, labor intensive, insufficient, or downright unsafe. For instance, we have seen some nations initially open in a phased approach or using alternative day attendance, but later loosen school processes due to lowering COVID rates or implementation challenges. The Washington Post recently reported that Belgium and Japan reopened following an alternative day attendance structure, and recently loosened protocols in schools. Both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium opened in phases, first for key grades (grades leading to a certification) in primary and secondary education, and later, following an open letter signed by 269 pediatricians, for all grades in kindergarten and primary schools. But each section of the country took different approaches in the opened schools. French-speaking Belgium implemented “bubbles” of classes that stayed together throughout the school day, not interacting with other students, and entering and exiting the building through different doors or according to staggered hours for instance. Within the classroom, students were not required to wear masks or socially distance from one another. In Flemish-speaking Belgium, classes were split into two groups, with each attending school in person two days per week, with Wednesday as a cleaning day.

Belgium was one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, but by early June, had largely contained the coronavirus. The reopening of schools was considered a success: there were only 15-20 Covid cases among the children from 2,500 schools in the French section, apparently not linked with school but rather with home conditions. No case involving children required hospitalization. A national increase of 66% in mid-July did not appear to be linked to schools. Nationwide, just four schools partly closed, and only one school needed to close completely, as the bubble concept allowed schools to quarantine single bubbles where infections occurred instead of closing and quarantining the entire school population.

These moves towards normalizing and adjusting as necessary are possible because Belgium and other countries, including Denmark, have done the work to minimize spread in the population and have put into place protocols in case of infection spread, such as contact tracing and quarantines. Similarly, Australia reopened schools and eventually loosened social distancing within schools, but when cases increased, in the Victoria (Melbourne) region, they returned to lockdowns. However, school closures are a small part of this. Israel began limiting class sizes when they reopened schools in May, and required masks to be worn by anyone over seven years of age. As cases spiked in the past weeks, the country moved all instruction for fourth grade and up to remote instruction. Israel now has plans to reopen schools for all grades with smaller class sizes, additional teachers, and hybrid education for middle and high school students.

Some hope for U.S. states may be found in Sweden. Sweden has essentially stayed open throughout the pandemic, without restrictions on class sizes or social distancing requirements for all except grades 10 and up, which were closed from March to mid-June. COVID cases among students connected to schools have been similar in prevalence to those in nearby Finland, and teachers of all grades appear to be at the same risk of infection as other adults. It is unknown, though, why this might be the case. One journalist speculated that naturally smaller class sizes and the exclusion of older students may play a role.

Reopening schools will be a work in progress. There does not seem to be one single approach that solves all COVID-related problems for schools. The countries that have had more success and had schools that have stayed open for the most part have generally been those that have contained the virus within their borders and have developed contingency plans for when infections occur. Meanwhile, in most U.S. states, COVID rates are on the increase. No country has opened schools when rates of new cases were high and rising, as is true today in the U.S. We have a long way to go before we are ready for full in-person schooling. But when U.S. rates of new cases diminish to, say, European levels (about 16 per hundred thousand; the U.S. is over 100), we should look carefully at what other countries have done and what their results have been, so that we can make wise choices to keep students and staff safe.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org