A high school in Georgia that shot to national attention this week, after photos of the packed school corridors with mask-less students went viral, has announced that it is temporarily switching its lessons to online-only.
North Paulding High School confirmed six new cases among students and three infections of staff members, less than a week after school resumed.
On Sunday Brian Otott, Paulding County Schools Superintendent, said that the school would be closed on Monday and lessons would be online.
In a letter to parents, Otott said Monday and Tuesday will be used to clean and disinfect the school.
North Paulding High School confirmed nine cases of COVID-19 this week, and will go online
Images shared earlier this week showed few students wearing masks in the crowded hallways
Brian Otott has announced that North Paulding High School will switch to online classes
Parents will learn Tuesday evening if in-person classes can resume later in the week.
‘Hopefully we can all agree that the health and safety of our students and staff takes precedence over any other considerations at this time,’ said Otott in his letter, which was obtained by Atlanta-area news outlets.
One of the students who took the viral photos, Hannah Watters, 15, was initially suspended over posting the images.
The school later reversed its decision on Watters’ suspension.
Hannah Watters photographed the corridors
‘This morning my school called and they have deleted my suspension,’ Watters said.
‘To be 100 percent clear, I can go back to school on Monday. I couldn’t have done this without all the support, thank you.’
Watters had earlier said the school told her she was being suspended for violating the code of conduct by using a cellphone and social media in school hours and violating student privacy by photographing them.
Following the publication of the photos, a whistleblower hotline has been created by a local representative to allow students and staff to raise concerns about the safety measures being taken in their schools.
The 15-year-old tweeted on Friday morning that her suspension had been reversed
Georgia House Rep Beth Moore has called for students and staff to share their stories
Angie Franks told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that two of her nephews were among the six students to test positive at the school this week.
One of the boys returned home from school Monday with no sense of smell and was immediately taken to be tested.
His brother also began to display symptoms and they were confirmed with coronavirus Wednesday.
They have since been quarantining at home but Franks voiced concern about the other students that may have exposed Monday.
The letter sent by Principal Gabe Carmona to parents confirming the new cases
The school has confirmed far more cases than any other in the district since July 1
‘They sat in class all day long with no masks and not social distancing,’ Franks said. ‘And I have no idea how many kids they came into contact with.’
She added that they had not been encouraged to wear masks in classrooms and hallways, and that the boys had not understood the gravity of the situation.
It comes as WSB TV Atlanta reports that the school has confirmed 23 coronavirus cases since July 1, far more than any other schools in the district.
There have been 53 cases reported since the start of July in Paulding County schools but the majority only have one confirmed case.
Schools did not begin in-person tuition until August 3.
In response to the viral images, Georgia State House Rep. Beth Moore established an anonymous whistleblower email account Friday for students, teachers and administrators to send pictures, videos and testimonials of the situation in their schools.
She has since posted several worrying claims that one school county board has tested positive for coronavirus and that in another school, teachers have yet to be supplied with protective and cleaning equipment.
Georgia state rep Beth Moore shares clams a school county board member has coronavirus
She has established a whistleblower hotline and is sharing teachers’ stories
One teacher claimed the staff have not been supplied with the cleaning products needed
‘This tweet has only been up for 1 hour & already I’ve received a disturbing tip of a county school board member testing positive, not telling anyone, & going to lunch at a restaurant a few days later,’ she wrote in a tweet Friday.
‘It’s the same failure of leadership at the state & federal level.’
One teacher in Gwinnett claimed that teachers were forced into an in-person meeting, where not everyone wore masks and those who attempted to social distance were told to move closer.
‘My principal is wonderful and I feel she is being pushed to do things that she knows aren’t right or feasible either,’ the teacher wrote.
Another teacher from the same district claimed the school’s custodian was almost in tears telling teachers that they did not have enough cleaning supplies to give teachers for their classrooms.
‘He said that if it is not provided soon, he will leave because he doesn’t want to feel responsible for people getting sick or God forbid – dying,’ they wrote.
They added that teachers had not been told where to isolate students if they are confirmed to have coronavirus during school hours and that no extra custodial staff have been hired to assist with the extra cleaning.
Video shared to social media earlier this week showed the crowded hallways
A series of photos showed the bustling corridors at North Paulding High School
In the photos, which were taken on Monday and Tuesday, fewer than half of the students shown are wearing masks.
There is no statewide mask mandate in the state of Georgia.
Watters told CNN that she posted the photos because she worried about the safety of students and teachers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘I was concerned for the safety of everyone in that building and everyone in the county because precautions that the CDC and guidelines that the CDC has been telling us for months now, weren’t being followed,’ Watters said.
She went on to reference the late John Lewis by saying: ‘I’d like to say this is some good and necessary trouble.
‘My biggest concern is not only about me being safe, it’s about everyone being safe because behind every teacher, student and staff member there is a family, there are friends, and I would just want to keep everyone safe.’
In the Cherokee County School District, staff and students at one school were forced to begin another 14-day quarantine this week after a second-grader tested positive after their first day back.
On Saturday, Georgia confirmed the death of a seven-year-old boy from coronavirus complications who had no preexisting conditions. He has contracted the virus after attending church.
The state now has more than 216,600 cases and over 4,199 deaths with an 11.92 percent positivity rate.
More than 3,100 new cases were confirmed on Sunday, and 13 deaths.
As of August 6, the US had more than 4.8 million reported cases of Covid-19 and at least 160,000 deaths. But we know the devastation is far greater: Our testing and contact tracing remain insufficient, and the official numbers don’t capture the indirect death toll, which could be far greater.
If there is one bright spot, nearly every sector of society has seized on the opportunity for systemic reform. We have expanded telehealth and temporarily disabled restrictive policies around medications for the treatment of substance use. We halted cash bail in many jurisdictions, and enacted eviction moratoriums.
Every sector, that is, except for the educational system, which is not even offering temporary measures such as a gap year for students or a moratorium on standardized testing.
As a front-line health care provider and parent who innovated during this pandemic by helping to open temporary hospitals for people experiencing homelessness, and as an educator and parent in the public school system where massive cuts are planned, we find this lack of creative thinking incredibly frustrating.
As schools plan for reopening, it seems as though the door has nearly closed for changes to the educational system that would reduce the opportunity gap and promote individualized learning. But there is a small window of opportunity to take advantage of this pandemic and wedge in measures — including ending compulsory education laws, waiving standardized testing, and empowering teachers — that will allow for deeper changes in the near future. It’s essential to pursue them now before the window closes.
Much of the US educational system is based on outdated institutional policies for standardized testing and student discipline. Even the textbooks that many public schools are forced to use are outdated (because of lack of funding). The landscape of students’ needs has changed over the past 50 years, but the educational system has not.
For example, there are more English-language learners and children with individualized education plans than ever before. Families are facing profound economic hardships that are rivaled in this country only by stories of the Great Depression. In the Kansas City Public School district alone, nearly half of students will need to transfer to a different school this year due to eviction. Half! Students who experience eviction can miss weeks of classroom time.
Why does this matter? One reason is that students who miss large amounts of class time will, inevitably, “fall behind.” Another reason is that eviction can cause trauma, especially in children.
Nevertheless, children who have experienced eviction are still held to the same standards as their stably housed peers, still expected to perform at grade level, and still expected to sit for standardized tests (which, by the way, have also been shown to cause significant harm especially to low-income students, students of the global majority, English-language learners, and students with disabilities).
Some of these students (especially Black and brown students) are also likely to have negative encounters with school disciplinarians such as resource officers, be targeted for minor infractions such as dress code violations, and be the victims of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies developed during the Reagan administration. Our educational system largely does not account for the complex social, economic, and dynamic needs of students. And, in some cases, it can actually cause harm.
What if, instead, we embraced policies that were not predicated on the need for an uninterrupted linear trajectory from kindergarten to 12th grade?
What if students were not penalized and harmed for missing school? What if we changed the system such that educational success meant more than “making it through” and taking a test?
We have no reason to believe that structural change — no matter how temporary or incremental — is impossible in the educational system. The fault in lack of change thus far lies, in part, with the federal government’s response.
If anything, there is a sense that many in the Trump administration and its allies across the country want public education to fail. For example, Kansas City Metropolitan charter and private schools received between $19.9 million and $55.9 million from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), program whereas Kansas City Public Schools received nothing.
Additionally, Missouri plans to cut $131 million from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The US Department of Education has stayed on the sidelines, allowing these inequities to persist.
Any discussion of schools from the federal government has focused solely on “reopening safely.” On July 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally released resources and tools intended to help facilitate school openings this fall. Essentially, these guidelines include topics such as how to promote behaviors that prevent the spread of Covid-19, how to make physical modifications to schools, how to restructure school days, and how to keep the school environment healthy through cleaning and proper ventilation.
These recommendations came just days after President Trump pressured the CDC to reverse course and after he threatened to withhold federal funding for schools that did not fully reopen. Not surprisingly, the president then flip-flopped on his stance, admitting that some schools may need to delay full reopening.
The US Department of Education, again, has been largely silent on the issue and has yet to release any guidance on the topic. Chronic underfunding, inconsistent messaging, and leadership vacuums have put individual schools and school districts in the precarious situation in which they must “go it alone.”
But the lack of progress cannot be blamed fully on the federal government; school district leaders have been largely absent on seizing on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake the system. Aside from groups of individual K-12 educators including “Liberate and Chill” and scholars like Bettina L. Love and the Abolitionist Teaching Network who have mobilized during the pandemic, there have been virtually no district-level attempts to move toward even incremental change, let alone systematic change.
More commonly, school districts have simply assembled expert panels, held town hall meetings, and sent out virtual surveys to parents to determine the best approach forward within the established paradigm. The plans that have emerged are predictable and limited to three models: all in-person learning, all virtual learning, or a mixed model of in-person and virtual for all students. We say these models were predictable because they are predicated on an outdated paradigm of learning that deserves to be reevaluated.
The current paradigm, reinforced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has forced school districts into the impossible predicament of choosing health or equity rather than health and equity. We would even argue that “health” has largely been ignored and “safety” has been used as a stand-in. By entertaining only in-person or virtual learning, school districts are struggling to understand how they can provide a quality education in a safe and equitable way.
Let’s take health first. Schools must grapple with the obvious question of how they protect teachers, staff, and students from Covid-19 — also known as “safety.” This is where the CDC guidance is meant to be useful. Given the confines of the brick buildings, school officials are asking how they can best protect members of our community from Covid-19.
But even though Covid-19 is a clear and present threat to our safety, schools must take a holistic view of health when considering reopening plans. Nearly 32 million students in public schools rely on schools as a source of food. At least 22 percent receive mental health counseling through school programs, a number likely to grow as a result of isolation from the pandemic.
How do we continue to provide these life-sustaining (and lifesaving) services without reopening in person?
Now let’s take on the issue of equity. There is already a profound educational opportunity gap in this country, as Prudence Carter, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and others have helped us understand. What happens to that opportunity gap if private schools, which are filled with affluent white children, are able to reopen for in-person learning while urban public schools, which are populated by majority Black and brown children, are not?
What about kids with individualized educational plans and English-language learners? If schools remain virtual, what does this do to children who cannot learn virtually? What about parents who cannot attend to and monitor their children’s virtual learning? Will the opportunity gap not also widen?
These all-or-none approaches are, at best, lazy, and at worst, harmful. They are lazy because they admit that there is no “good way” forward so we simply need to pick the least bad option. They pit health and equity against each other. They are harmful for a number of reasons, and they do not account for the unique needs of individual children in a larger societal context.
But it raises the question: Why hasn’t the educational system seized on this opportunity to enact permanent or even temporary changes?
Ultimately, the question is not as simple as who should attend school in person versus virtually, but rather, how we can remake our educational system such that it serves the needs of individuals in our path to achieving equity. The potential to innovate for the future and reduce the opportunity gap are bold objectives. From an equity perspective, both require significant changes to policies and established structures.
Sadly, the time appears to be nearly up. Schools in half the country have reopened while the other half are firming up their reopening plans.
Unfortunately, these reopening plans only enhance safety by preventing the transmission of Covid-19, but do little else to promote health and virtually nothing to address the opportunity gap. We have done nothing to reimagine space but to move desks further apart and eat lunch in one’s classroom. We have done nothing to address the fact that education and learning mean more than achieving Common Core standards.
To salvage this opportunity and leave the door open for structural change, we need to enact incremental or even temporary changes before it is too late.
1) End compulsory education laws
First, we propose to end compulsory education laws. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to enact a compulsory education law, which required every city and town to offer primary school that focused on grammar and basic arithmetic. Rooted in racism and institutionalized as a way to control minority populations, compulsory education laws became the norm across the US.
Currently, with few exceptions, children across the US are required to attend public or state-accredited private schools from age 6 through 16. The most notable exceptions to the law include homeschooling and work release permits offered in many states that allow students to work outside of the school during normal school hours. In this unprecedented time, we need to consider an end to, or at the very least, a temporary moratorium on compulsory education laws. If done on a temporary basis, parents would be given the choice of whether to send their children to school for the 2020-2021 school year, thus creating a “gap year” alternative.
In the temporary model, any child who does not attend school this fall will be required to begin again in the fall of 2021, and they will start the grade they are currently slated to start.
How would this help?
First, this would result in decongested schools and buses that would allow for more physical distancing, thus making it safer from a Covid-19 standpoint for students who attend in person as well as teachers and other staff.
Second, it might relieve the anguish many parents across the wealth spectrum feel about the inadequacy of virtual education and our inability to monitor our child’s success. A gap year would unburden parents from having to monitor (and worry about) whether their children are paying attention, whether they have completed all their assignments, or whether they are engaged with their schoolwork. Parents may struggle with other activities to occupy their children, but likely will not experience the same stress of worrying that their child is “falling behind.”
Third, it would provide students of all ages with an opportunity to learn outside the traditional classroom. High school-age students may be able to work for the year, helping their families with income and gaining valuable work experience. Younger students may participate in learning pods with other families such that it unburdens individual families with child care responsibilities and children may be exposed to culturally diverse experiences in other households.
Finally, there is not a dearth of college-age students who are also taking a gap year or who are unable to find gainful employment and stand ready to provide enrichment activities and other social-emotional learning opportunities to boost their résumés.
2) Do not reinstate standardized tests
When school buildings closed in March and April, the door to structural change for public education seemed wide open. Educators were partnered with families and community organizations knowing that student success was not possible without these relationships. The cancellation of standardized tests was central to this progress. It allowed teachers to engage students in more meaningful learning experiences instead of weeks of test prep, and there was one less barrier to post-secondary education for many students who were no longer required to take a college admission exam.
Teachers across the country came together to form grassroots organizations to provide online learning experiences for educators who wanted to develop their understanding of anti-racist and liberatory pedagogy. This was only possible because teachers were no longer bound by standardized tests as a marker of success. As a result, students were able to engage in schoolwork that spoke to them.
This, coupled with the absence of routine harmful interactions with school resource officers and oppressive school policies faced by many Black and brown students, meant that some students were engaged like never before. School districts and teachers should seize on the fact that a number of colleges and universities are waiving ACT and SAT requirements for the upcoming year. There is no need to reinstate these problematic and inherently racist tests. A continued moratorium on standardized testing buys us time to reimagine what we consider to be valuable knowledge and skills.
3) Empower teachers
While individual teachers have little control over state- and district-wide policies, they can continue to strengthen relationships with parents and students and design curriculums that centers their voices and lived experiences. They can use anti-bias and anti-racist pedagogy not just during back-to-school professional development but for the long haul.
They can use resources (such as Liberate & Chill and the Abolitionist Teaching Network) to create teacher and student learning experiences that provide space to imagine new possibilities and the tools to remake the educational system. They can advocate to make schools a place for educators and not police officers.
They can push schools to reinvest resources at school level and implement restorative justice policies and practices that will help close the school-to-prison pipeline. They can do this if given the freedom to innovate by districts and unconstrained by the need to “teach to the test.”
Inequities will exist between those students in a gap year who can afford enrichment activities or a full-time one-on-one care provider and those who are part of a gap-year family child care pod. We need a systematic way to ensure that children who are on a gap year remain engaged in some activity that captures their attention and imagination, or addresses a need.
Schools receive funds based on pupil size, which, in turn, is how teachers are provided salaries. Fewer students means less funds (as the president has implied), which would lead to teacher layoffs. Instead of threatening to withhold funding, public schools should receive federal funds to support innovative approaches and retain teachers during this turbulent time. If the federal government can find ways to provide relief packages to corporations, they can surely find a way to provide financial relief to public school districts.
Many people will likely bemoan the lack of standardized testing, as there will be no “objective” way to measure students’ success. But it is clear that standardized tests are not a measure of academic success or intellect and we must resist calls for their reinstatement.
Finally, teachers may encounter resistance from school districts, parents, and government officials. Teachers cannot do this alone, and we need a broad coalition of parents and educators who see this as a way forward to address both health and equity.
Do these actions fix all the problems with the educational system? Absolutely not.
Based on our own conversations and experiences, educators have gotten wrapped up in the “we must do everything” mentality instead of the “we must do something” mentality that we are missing the opportunity to do anything. With time running out before public schools reconvene the same system that has not changed in the past 50 years, we must be willing to look for unconventional solutions, no matter how temporary they may be.
As we have seen in the health care system, even temporary changes such as reimbursement for telehealth visits will be hard to reverse. The educational system would be wise to implement even temporary policies such that they leave the door open for the future. Unfortunately, it will likely take another global pandemic to create a similar window of opportunity for change.
Joshua Barocas is an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
Jennifer Lacy received her PhD in curriculum and instruction from the University of Wisconsin Madison. She teaches high school science in Kansas City, Missouri, and is the director of Education for American Daughters.
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One of the first school districts in the country to reopen its doors during the coronavirus pandemic did not even make it a day before being forced to grapple with the issue facing every system actively trying to get students into classrooms: What happens when someone comes to school infected?
Just hours into the first day of classes on Thursday, a call from the county health department notified Greenfield Central Junior High School in Indiana that a student who had walked the halls and sat in various classrooms had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Administrators began an emergency protocol, isolating the student and ordering everyone who had come into close contact with the person, including other students, to quarantine for 14 days. It is unclear whether the student infected anyone else.
“We knew it was a when, not if,” said Harold E. Olin, superintendent of the Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation, but were “very shocked it was on Day 1.”
To avoid the same scenario, hundreds of districts across the country that were once planning to reopen their classrooms, many on a part-time basis, have reversed course in recent weeks as infections have spiked in many states.
Those that do still reopen are having to prepare for the near-certain likelihood of quarantines and abrupt shutdowns when students and staff members test positive.
Of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, all but six have announced they will start remotely, although some in places like Florida and Texas are hoping to open classrooms after a few weeks if infection rates go down, over strong objections from teachers’ unions.
More than 80 percent of California residents live in counties where test positivity rates and hospitalizations are too high for school buildings to open under state rules issued last month. And schools in Alexandria, Va., said on Friday that they would teach remotely, tipping the entire Washington-Baltimore metro area, with more than one million children, into virtual learning for the fall.
In March, when schools across America abruptly shuttered, it seemed unimaginable that educators and students would not return to school come fall, as they have in many other parts of the world. Now, with the virus continuing to rage, tens of millions of students will start the year remotely, and it has become increasingly clear that only a small percentage of children are likely to see the inside of a school building before the year ends.
“There’s no good answer,” Mark Henry, superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District near Houston, told trustees at a recent special meeting in which they voted to postpone the district’s hybrid reopening until September. “If there was a good answer, if there were an easy answer,” he said, “we would lay it out for you and everybody would be happy.”
Anywhere that schools do reopen — outside of a portion of the Northeast where the virus is largely under control — is likely to see positive test results quickly, as in Indiana.
A New York Times analysis found that in many districts in the Sun Belt, at least five people infected with the coronavirus would be expected to arrive at a school of about 500 students and staff members during the first week if it reopened today.
To deal with that likelihood, many schools and some states have enacted contact tracing and quarantine protocols, with differing thresholds at which they would close classrooms or buildings.
Because of the low infection rate locally, New York City, the largest district in the country, plans to reopen schools on a hybrid model on Sept. 10, with students attending in-person classes one to three days a week. Yet even there, the system might have to quickly close if the citywide infection rate ticks up even modestly.
On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out a plan for responding to positive cases that would mean many of the city’s 1,800 public schools would most likely have individual classrooms or even entire buildings closed at certain points.
One or two confirmed cases in a single classroom would require those classes to close for 14 days, with all students and staff members ordered to quarantine. The rest of the school would continue to operate, but if two or more people in different classrooms in the same school tested positive, the entire building would close for an investigation, and might not reopen for two weeks depending on the results.
In California, where schools in two-thirds of the state have been barred from reopening in person for now, state guidelines call for a school to close for at least 14 days if more than 5 percent of its students, faculty and staff test positive over a two-week period.
Updated July 27, 2020
Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, has proposed a hybrid system for reopening that would put students into 15-member pods that can be quarantined if one member tests positive. School buildings should close if the city averages more than 400 new cases a week or 200 cases a day, the plan states, with other worrying factors like low hospital capacity or a sudden spike in cases taken into account.
In Indiana, where the middle school student tested positive on Thursday in Greenfield, an Indianapolis suburb of 23,000 people, the virus began to spike in mid-June, and the caseload has remained relatively high. This week, Indianapolis opted to start the school year online.
The Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation, with eight schools and 4,400 students, gave families the option of in-person or remote learning. At Greenfield Central Junior High School, which the student with the positive test attends, about 15 percent of the 700 enrolled students opted for remote learning, said Mr. Olin, the superintendent.
“It was overwhelming that our families wanted us to return,” he said, adding that families needed to be responsible and not send students to school if they were displaying symptoms or awaiting test results. Students are also required to wear masks except when they are eating or for physical education outside, he said — and as far as he knew, the student who tested positive was doing so.
Anyone who was within six feet of the student for more than 15 minutes on Thursday was instructed to isolate themselves for two weeks, Mr. Olin said. He would not give a specific number of people who were affected at the school, but he said no teachers or staff members were identified as close contacts, and therefore none have been told to quarantine.
“It really doesn’t change my opinion about whether we should start or not,” Mr. Olin said. “If we get down the road and realize that we need to make some adjustments, we’re not opposed to that.”
He said that the district did not have a specific threshold for when it would close a school, but that it would likely do so if absences reached 20 percent. The state has not provided specific guidance to schools on when they should shut their doors, he said.
Some teachers in the district said the positive case on the first day confirmed their fears about returning.
“I most definitely felt like we were not ready,” said Russell Wiley, a history teacher at nearby Greenfield-Central High School. “Really, our whole state’s not ready. We don’t have the virus under control. It’s just kind of like pretending like it’s not there.”
One father whose daughter goes to the middle school with the positive case said he felt conflicted about his three children attending classes in person. Few people in the community are wearing masks, said the father, who asked not to be named because he worried that his family would face backlash.
“I have all these concerns,” the father said. But he has to commute at least an hour to work every day, so remote learning was not a good option for his family.
“It’s just a mess,” he said. “I don’t know what the answers are.”
When state officials were deciding whether to shutter their schools back in March, the evidence they had to work with was thin. They knew kids easily catch and spread influenza — and that school holidays and closures have helped slow its spread. But they weren’t sure if the same was true for Covid-19.
Now, a study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that closing all of a state’s schools was associated with a drastic decrease in both Covid-19 cases and deaths. And the point at which officials made that call mattered: Those states that adopted the policy while few people were testing positive saw a correlated flatter curve of cases.
“It’s a nice study. It’s clear that coincident with closing down schools, the numbers improved,” said Helen Boucher, chief of the division of geographic medicine and infectious diseases at Tufts Medical Center, who wasn’t involved in the research. But she noted that we have to be careful about drawing overly broad conclusions from a single sliver of a sweeping shutdown strategy: “School closing didn’t happen in a vacuum.”
It also still isn’t clear how likely kids of different ages are to get and pass on the virus, which makes it hard to tease out the reasons why school closures might have helped to shift the outbreak.
“It’s quite possible — and probable — that people changed their behavior because they thought, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s this new virus and it’s so scary they’re closing schools,’” said pediatrician Katherine Auger, associate chair of outcomes at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and the first author of the new paper.
“One thing we can’t tease out is how much of the effect was related to the virus spreading within schools, and the larger change in the community because now parents aren’t going to work,” she added.
The findings arrive amid a furor over school reopenings. This spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines about preventing viral transmission within schools, recommending that students be physically distanced, by placing desks 6 feet apart, for instance. For some schools, that seemed impossible, given the number of kids enrolled and the architecture of classrooms. That meant that at least some teaching would take place online, which contradicted the president’s rosy — and to many public health experts, risky — ideas about reopening.
After both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence criticized the guidelines and encouraged schools to reopen fully, the CDC released revised guidelines, which sparked fears that federal public health experts were caving under political pressure.
The new study doesn’t show cause and effect, only an association between school closures and case counts in an area. The authors warned it also can’t provide a blanket prescription for the fall.
“Our study took place at a time when schools weren’t doing things like masking,” Auger explained. “It’s really impossible to project the old way of schools into the future of schools, assuming they’ll be following the expert guidelines.”
To her, the work supports the “flexible and nimble” approach backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Having kids physically present in schools doesn’t just spur academic learning and the essential cognitive and emotional development that comes from social interaction, the organization stated. It also allows them to receive a slew of services, from free meals to adult eyes that might pick up signs of abuse at home.
But those benefits have to be weighed against the risks of Covid-19 for kids, parents, grandparents, and teachers — a threat best kept in check with rapid testing that much of the country cannot provide.
In the new study, Auger and her team compared reality — in which all 50 states closed schools in March — to a computer model in which everything else stayed the same while schools remained open. They calculated the time it would’ve taken for infections acquired in schools to be transmitted, and for those patients to then show up in hospitals and for a certain fraction of them to die.
Their projection found that, if schools had stayed open, there could have been roughly 424 more coronavirus infections and 13 more deaths per 100,000 residents over the course of 26 days.
Extrapolate that to the American population, and the country might have seen as many as 1.37 million more cases and 40,600 more deaths, explained Samir Shah, the director of hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and one of the authors of the paper.
“These numbers seem ridiculously high and it’s mind-boggling to think that these numbers are only … in the first several weeks,” said Shah. “That’s bonkers.” He warned, though, that those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. While their statistical model attempts to pinpoint the impact of schools staying open or being closed, the method can’t actually establish any sort of causal relationship.
The authors realized that their estimation of how long it might take an infection picked up in a school to turn into a symptomatic case of Covid-19 might be off, and wondered if that might influence their results. When they changed those time lags, though, they still found a significant correlation between closing schools and decreased caseload and mortality.
To Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of global health at University of California, San Diego, that was what made this study convincing. “This study was taking imperfect data but doing a very elegant analysis,” she said. “If we were wrong, what’s the other extreme, would it change the results? If these kids infected parents, but it took a little longer or a little shorter, what then?”
The bottom line, she said, was that strategies such as school closures do seem to make a difference when it comes to the risks of Covid-19.
Auger’s team also analyzed whether the timing of school closures was correlated to a change in cases and deaths. “States who closed schools before their Covid numbers were high had the largest effect,” she said.
While kids seem to be less likely to get sick than adults, there is some evidence that schools can be important sites of coronavirus transmission. Younger children appear less likely to pass on the virus than tweens and teens, though more research is needed to fully understand the various risks.
Shah, meanwhile, warned that people reading the study should not forget about the risks of interruptions to schooling. “We can quantify the risk of Covid. It’s much harder to quantify the risk of being absent from school for a prolonged period of time,” he said.
Both he and Auger emphasized the importance of tailoring strategies to the needs and coronavirus risks within each family and community, and that better, quicker testing would allow for a safer back-to-school strategy. “It’s a real challenge, and I think that our study is one very important piece of the puzzle in how we think about this,” Shah said.
We may have been kidding ourselves about the likelihood of children spreading the coronavirus. A major study conducted in South Korea shows that children under 10 do give the virus to each other and to adults less often than other age groups do, the New York Times reports. But it does happen. And particularly worrisome as schools prepare to reopen is the finding that those ages 10 to 19 spread the coronavirus even more often than adults do. This study contradicts some research, but a Harvard expert called the earlier work flawed. The South Korean study, which included contact tracing, “is very carefully done, it’s systematic and looks at a very large population,” he said. “It’s one of the best studies we’ve had to date on this issue.”
One theory for why the youngest spread the virus about half as often as adults is that children exhale closer to the ground, away from adults. And they exhale less air. There are few answers about why older children are so infectious. It might be because they often combine the physical size of adults with the lack of hygiene of young children. “We can speculate all day about this,” one expert said, per the Times, “but we just don’t know.” Even without definitive answers, an epidemiologist said, children would have to be found to not transmit the virus at all for it to be completely safe for them to gather. “Putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said. An infectious disease expert warned: “There will be transmission. What we have to do is accept that now and include that in our plans.” (Read more coronavirus stories.)