The return to school will not look like business as usual in the US, according to experts speaking on Tuesday during a webinar from the Alliance for Health Policy.
“Our return to school will not be a return to the school norm,” said Wendy Price, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. “Right now, school districts are hammering out one of three different educational platforms that they may be accessing.” These are full time, in-person schooling, a hybrid model and online schooling.
In-person schooling, for example, needs to look at the safety of children and staff, in regard to things like physical distance and protecting people who are most vulnerable. Online only schooling raises other questions. “Does everybody have access to wireless or broadband WIFI, or do they have access to Chromebooks,” said Price.
“There’s just a litany of things that schools are going to have to consider,” Price said. “And it’s no one size fits all. It really isn’t.”
Returning to school is such a “fluid and dynamic situation” that what is put into place in September may not work in January, she said. Schools may have to roll back or roll forward, keep being flexible and “really paying attention to the levels around us in our neighborhoods and our communities.”
Reopening schools also depends on where you are in the country and what the levels of Covid-19 are, Price said.
She compared members of her organization in small, rural, coronavirus-free parts of Montana who are ready to go back, with members at Boston public schools, where there are higher numbers of students and cases who are “certainly not ready.”
Dr. David Rubin, director of PolicyLab and director of Population Health at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, also said that the safe reopening of schools will depend on the level of Covid-19 in the community. “This isn’t simply about whether kids don’t get that sick. This is about the risk to entire communities that are born by placing kids in large groups in a school,” he said.
While he said that children are less susceptible, fewer are symptomatic and they will have less severe infection, “we know fairly confidently now that symptomatic children are going to transmit.”
And if there is more virus in a community, more kids will catch it and spread it. Rubin pointed to outbreaks in camps in Georgia and Missouri as examples of this.
“Kids don’t live in bubbles,” said Rubin. “They rely on parents and grandparents every day. They rely on their teachers, the school personnel.”
The safest way to reopen schools, he said, is to get community Covid-19 numbers down, he said. Once test positivity gets below five or three percent, dependent on what state leaders and departments of health are saying, “you have an opportunity to use your mitigation plan.”
The foundation for a good mitigation plan in schools, according to Rubin, starts with ensuring that sick children and teachers are kept out of the school, and then once children are in school, keeping on top of all measures like social distancing, mask use and hand hygiene, for both teachers and students.