Schools Reopening: Let’s Make This a Catalyst for Change

The topic of school reopening and children’s health is the last thing I want to write about, because I don’t have the answer.

Every day it seems there’s a new email from school with a change of plans, or news reports about studies of COVID-19, children and schools that are far removed from the reality in the U.S. It’s even unclear what to make of the results in those studies: Reports from Florida, Georgia and other states show in stark relief the risks to children of rushed reopening – and to the adults who work in the schools.

I am a scientist at EWG, but I don’t have the perfect solution for you, or even for my own family. Every educational approach to this fall – school reopening, all kids online, a hybrid model – entails tradeoffs and risks. My frustration with these discussions comes from the realization that it’s not a problem any individual family can solve.

A much-publicized study from South Korea showed that middle- and high-school-aged children can easily transmit the infection to others. A U.K.-based study reported that, to prevent a new wave of coronavirus infections, school reopening and other relaxations of social distancing requirements “must be accompanied by large-scale, population-wide testing of symptomatic individuals and effective tracing of their contacts, followed by isolation of diagnosed individuals.”

That’s a reasonable idea. But as Jennifer Kates, Ph.D., and Josh Michaud, Ph.D., from the Kaiser Family Foundation, wrote last week, “Other countries have not reopened schools with the levels of community transmission found in the U.S., coupled with its insufficient testing and limited contact tracing.”

If you’re a parent, I understand the consternation and brain power that has gotten sucked into trying to figure out the best path forward. For me, that’s brain power I would prefer to be using for my job and to focus on my children.

I have three kids in elementary school and one starting middle school, and my wife works in a high school. This spring we struggled to manage online learning and work. Fall school reopening plans have dominated the conversation in our household for weeks.

Like many other parents, I’m constantly looking at the numbers for my county and my state – the number of new cases, number of deaths, percent positive detections, number of hospital beds still open, or needed. The numbers can often feel overwhelming.

Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, stated in a recent podcast, “All these numbers we talk about are people, they are loved ones….At the same time, these numbers are very important indicators of what we are doing or not doing.”

Discussions at my house have frequently centered on educational equity and access, and how school opening decisions affect different students and families very differently. And although so far the pandemic has only exacerbated unequal access to education, it could also serve as a catalyst for closing the gap.

To send our kids to school and have them interact with others requires a plan and a system for managing this virus, one goes beyond just one home or even one community. The coronavirus doesn’t respect state or school district boundaries; ultimately, we have to rely on the local, state and national community to which we are connected.

U.S. public health and school reopening policies are a mess, in large part because of a lack of federal leadership and science illiteracy. Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have released helpful guidance on the pros and cons of in-person schooling in a pandemic, and many districts around the country have done an incredible job coming up with educational plans. What’s missing is science-based federal guidance that prioritizes the heath of students and teachers.

There are parallels between the push from our president to open schools because it’s good for business and what’s also occurring in the regulation of toxic chemicals and drinking water pollution. The regulatory process at the federal level has been coopted by corporate interests at the expense of public health. Regulations at the federal level are not being set, but in their absence, states and localities are taking action. For that reason, public health protection policies may increasingly be based on where a person lives. Once my kids are back in school, this is a problem I really want to get back to trying to solve.

Mostly I just want to get through all the logistics of going back to school, whether it’s online, hybrid or in-person learning, so my kids – and children across the country – can focus on learning, and learning about science specifically. What our country needs now more than ever is a future generation that’s well educated and science literate.

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