Opinion | Is Your Child’s School Ready to Reopen? | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children

Many parents have one question on their minds right now: Can my child’s school open safely amid the pandemic? Times Opinion looked at which counties might be able to open schools by examining where the rate of new coronavirus cases may be low enough, and testing rates high enough, to allow it.


Note: Case data and state-level positivity test rates as of August 11. | Sources: Harvard Global Health Institute (case data, state-level positivity test rates); state governments (county-level positivity test rates)

The analysis found that most schools across the country should remain partially or fully closed, including in almost the entire South, where cases are still surging and testing is insufficient. But in other states, like those in the coastal Northeast, schools can reopen — with conditions, like avoiding high risk activities, wearing masks and physical distancing.

Our analysis considers two main things: the rate of new infections in a county and the county’s testing capabilities. We used guidelines from the Harvard Global Health Institute, which proposed a variety of ways to open schools as long as the county has fewer than 25 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 people. We also used the World Health Organization’s proposal to open only if fewer than 5 percent of all those who are tested for the virus over a two-week period actually have it.

The second part matters because if a higher proportion of people are testing positive, it could mean that not enough tests are being conducted to adequately measure the spread.

Not every county that opens schools would do it the same way. Guidelines proposed by Harvard allow some elementary schools to open first while high schools would remain online. Here are those guidelines applied to our rankings.


Where schools can reopen?

Based on number of new cases and positivity test rates





Schools should stay remote

Elementary and middle school can reopen,

high school stays remote

Elementary and middle school can reopen,

high school partially remote

Safe to reopen all schools

Schools should stay remote

Elementary and middle school can reopen, high school stays remote

Elementary and middle school can reopen, high school partially remote

Safe to reopen all schools

Schools should stay remote

Elementary and middle school can reopen, high school stays remote

Elementary and middle school can reopen, high school partially remote

Safe to reopen all schools


Sources: Harvard Global Health Institute (case data, state-level positivity test rates); state governments (county-level positivity test rates)

Areas with the lowest number of new cases per capita, such as parts of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, shown here in green, can reopen schools for all grades if safety precautions are taken.

Yellow areas, such as most of New York and Michigan, could resume in-person learning for pre-K to 5th grade, and for middle schools, with high school students on a schedule that mixes online and in-person learning.

For orange areas, like much of California and Maryland, recommendations are similar with the exception of high schoolers staying completely remote.

Red zones, like Louisiana, Florida and Georgia, shouldn’t open their schools because the higher case rates means the virus is more likely to spread. But that could change in just a few weeks if testing improves and cases fall.

“We’re not saying close schools forever. We’re saying postpone. Give it a few weeks,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor in the department of health policy and management at Harvard.

Many school districts in those red zones have already reopened. A photo of a crowded high school hallway in Paulding County, Ga., went viral after the school reopened this month. Just days later, half a dozen students and three teachers tested positive for the coronavirus, leading the school to return to online-only instruction for at least a few days.

Our analysis showed Paulding County did not meet the criteria to open schools. Meanwhile, some school districts in the Northeast are still questioning whether they should open schools, though the data suggests they could.

“There’s a rush to reopen in the South and there’s a delay to reopen in places where the community transmission is low,” Dr. Tsai said.

Is it safe?

Governors face a difficult decision on schools. Many public health experts have argued that their policies on reopenings should account for not only new infections and testing but also the risks of hospitalizations and deaths.

The map of “safe” areas looks very different depending on the standards adopted. Leaked documents revealed the White House set a generous standard, allowing up to 10 percent of people in a region to test positive before more severe restrictions should be considered. Researchers at Harvard set this number at just 3 percent.


Where is there enough testing? Depends on who you ask.





3% positivity test rate suggested by

the Harvard Global Health Institute

5% positivity test rate suggested by

the World Health Organization

10% positivity test rate suggested by

the White House

3% positivity test rate suggested by the Harvard Global Health Institute

5% positivity test rate suggested by the World Health Organization

10% positivity test rate suggested by the

White House

3% positivity test rate suggested by the

Harvard Global Health Institute

5% positivity test rate suggested by the

World Health Organization

10% positivity test rate suggested by

the White House


Note: Data as of August 11.·Sources: Harvard Global Health Institute (state-level positivity test rates); state governments (county-level positivity test rates)

Nevertheless, a phased county-by-county approach was key to reopening the economy in many states and could help students get into class faster in places with lower case levels.

California is already relying on a similar approach, allowing counties to reopen schools after being removed from the state’s “watch list” for two weeks. The watch list tracks new cases, hospitalizations and hospital capacity.

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York proposed a region-by-region approach, case levels are low enough statewide for all New York schools to open — for now.

“Everybody wants to reopen schools, but you only reopen if it’s safe to reopen, and that’s determined by the data,” said Mr. Cuomo in an announcement. “You don’t hold your finger up and feel the wind, you don’t have an inspiration, you don’t have a dream, you don’t have an emotion — look at the data.”

Who gets left behind?

The regional approach could also make the education gap wider if richer, whiter students are allowed back before others.

Our analysis found that that is likely to be the case, as schools that could reopen were mostly in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.


Whiter counties could reopen sooner

Covid-19 risk levels and share of white population, by county (circles sized by county population)





Schools should stay remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools partially online

Share of white population

Note: Not all counties are shown.

Schools should stay remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools partially online

Share of white population


Sources: Harvard Global Health Institute (risk levels); American Community Survey (race, population)

In the coronavirus era, income can often determine who safely stays at home and who must risk their lives on the frontlines. It also influences who will succeed in a remote learning environment; studies have found that lower-income students without good access to the internet and whose parents can’t afford private tutors can fall behind.


Richer counties could reopen sooner

Covid-19 risk levels and median income, by county (circles sized by county population)





Schools should

stay remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools partially online


Sources: Harvard Global Health Institute (risk levels); American Community Survey (race, population)

Our analysis also found that the counties where it was safer to open schools also had higher rates of health insurance coverage and lower prevalence of chronic diseases. Chronic diseases like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and lung and heart diseases are known to put Covid-19 patients at risk of severe sickness. The majority of counties that should remain closed have a higher prevalence of those risk factors, according to the Covid Health Risk Index.

In certain states, the risk is alarmingly high. Among the West Virginian counties that should keep schools closed, most rank in the top 10 percent nationwide for health risks. Many Southeastern counties rank above the national median.


Health risks are higher in counties that should stay closed

Covid-19 risk levels and health risks, by county (circles sized by county population)





Schools should stay remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools partially online

Schools should stay remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools partially online


Sources: Harvard Global Health Institute (risk levels); PolicyMap (health risk); American Community Survey (population)

These disparities complicate the more data-driven approach advocated by Governor Cuomo and other governors. We can’t just look at cases of Covid-19; we also need to look holistically at the community’s health.

“If we just focus on our own individual needs, our entire society is going to suffer. We have to be in it together,” said Dr. Naomi Bardach, an associate professor of pediatrics and health policy at the University of California San Francisco. “If we decide pragmatically that schools who can afford to open now can — without paying attention to the fact that there are a bunch of communities that are going to suffer because they can’t open, and we’re just going to abandon them — that’s the wrong societal perspective.”

The solution, Dr. Bardach said, is to fund schools that cannot otherwise afford to follow guidelines, help communities reduce infection rates and improve testing capacity nationally.

But those goals are harder to achieve because many of those communities have other conditions that make them particularly fragile.

Consider health insurance: The median income in most counties with high case rates in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Texas is well below the national median. They also have uninsured rates significantly higher than the national average. The federal government requires Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers to cover testing and doctor visits for Covid-19. But this doesn’t extend to the cost of hospitalizations, and millions of uninsured Americans have already incurred immense expenses most of them won’t be able to cover.


Counties that could reopen are better insured

Covid-19 risk levels and share of adults without health insurance, by county (circles sized by county population)





Schools should stay remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools partially online

Share of adults without health insurance

Note: Not all counties are shown.

Schools should stay remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools remote

Elementary/middle schools open,

high schools partially online

Share of adults without health insurance


Sources: Harvard Global Health Institute (risk levels); American Community Survey (health insurance)

In places where communities are particularly vulnerable, getting the pandemic under control should be the priority before reopening schools. After all, the kids are only as safe as bus drivers who take them to school.


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