3 COVID insights from schools that have reopened

Community transmission, safety precautions and response planning are critical
By: | August 20, 2020
Students must wear masks and socially distance to return to school safely, even in communities where COVID transmission rates are low. (GettyImages/RichLegg)Students must wear masks and social distance to return to school safely, even in communities where COVID transmission rates are low. (GettyImages/RichLegg)

Districts that have reopened are providing a cautionary tale about the risk of COVID spreading among teachers and students, Johns Hopkins University experts say.

There are, however, still some insights to be gained, Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the university’s Center for Health Security, said during a webinar Thursday,

The first critical factor in maintaining student safety when reopening schools is the level of illness in the surrounding community. “There are communities where it’s not possible to reopen due to the level of illness,” Nuzzo said. “If there are high levels of infections, staff and students may come to school infected and the virus will spread.”

Community transmission should be declining, or at least have stabilized, before schools should consider reopening, Nuzzo says.

More from DA: How to block COVID’s spread from schools to the community

The second key factor is maintaining strict safety precautions. Even in communities where transmission rates are low, students must continue to wear masks and social distance in the classrooms.

School administrators should also upgrade ventilation systems and hold classes and activities outdoors as much as possible, Nuzzo says.

Finally, schools must plan for how they will respond if a student or staff member falls ills with COVID.

A response will be more focused and effective if administrators have limited students’ interactions by grouping them into cohorts or bubbles. This makes contract tracing easier because administrators will know who has been exposed, Nuzzo says.

“Hopefully, with cohorts, you wouldn’t have to close the entire school,” she says.

School outbreaks that have occurred in other countries have most commonly been linked to outside social events, she also noted.

“It’s one thing for schools to put safety measures in place, but if families and staff don’t take similar precautions in their life, that will dilute the impact of school planning,” she says.

Mental health during COVID

Adults also will have to support students’ mental health as schools reopen, said Tamar Mendelson, director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Adolescent Health.

More from DA: Here’s one way to get enough masks and PPE to reopen safely

“Parents and teachers should make sure to acknowledge and validate how young people are feeling,” Mendelson said. “We have to give them space and opportunity to express stress and frustration.”

Adults should watch out for sudden changes in students, such as a loss of interest in hobbies and other pursuits.

Adults can also model coping strategies such as how to be flexible, be empathetic, and accept imperfections and difficulties, she said.

“It’s also important for adults not to overlook that some young people are experiencing a silver lining to this situation,” she said. “Some young people have said they are no longer exposed to bullying and social issues at school, and then has helped them to feel happier and do better in courses.”

COVID testing in school

COVID testing is likely a less effective strategy than are masks and social distancing in preventing transmission in schools, Nuzzo says.

Schools may not be able to get results back quickly enough to intervene if there is a positive diagnosis.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.