Schools can only reopen safely where COVID is under control

'This should be a national priority. It's measurably more import than reopening bars and restaurants.'
By: | July 16, 2020

Reopening schools is crucial but students and teachers cannot return to classrooms safely until surrounding communities have controlled COVID infections, a group of Johns Hopkins University health experts said Thursday.

Countries that have reopened schools without igniting new coronavirus outbreaks have only done so once community transmissions have been substantially reduced, the experts said in a webinar.

“This should be a national priority,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s measurably more import than reopening bars and restaurants.”

In countries such as France, Finland, Japan and South Korea, officials reopened schools successfully when COVID cases dropped to one per 100,000 people. Currently, some U.S. counties are seeing 60 to 80 cases per 100,000 residents, Cicero said.

More from DA: Why in-person elementary school should be a first step for reopening

In Israel, on the other hand, officials reopened schools with few precautions and as the country’s cases were increasing, due in part to the resumption of large gatherings. Officials were then forced to close schools again.

Essential safety steps for reopening schools

The matter is urgent because of the academic and social-emotional benefits of in-person instruction, said Dr. Josh Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Schools not only feed students but teachers and staff report one-in-five cases of child abuse, Sharfstein said.

“We recognize the absence of in-person school has really harmed children,” he said.

There is ample evidence that children are at a lower risk of severe COVID infections but less is known about whether they are rapid spreaders of the virus.

More from DA: Risk-benefit analysis—What pediatricians say about reopening schools

Still, administrators who reopen schools must implement a range of safety precautions to prevent new illnesses, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Schools in other countries are holding classes outdoors, encouraging frequent hand washing and sanitization, conducting daily symptom checks, and stocking extra supplies of masks for students and teachers who don’t have face coverings, Nuzzo said.

To reduce interactions, schools should also consider creating cohorts or “bubbles” of students and teachers that remain together at all times. This could prevent entire schools or districts from having to close if an infection is diagnosed, Nuzzo said.

All these initiatives will require resources that students don’t have. “Federal support is absolutely necessary,” Nuzzo said. “The amount allocated for education was less than 1% of the stimulus package. That is not enough.”

Convincing parents schools are safe

Even in areas where community transmission is low, parents and teachers may remain skeptical about the safety of returning to classrooms.

More from DA: 6 key ingredients to creating an outdoor classroom

School administrators should invite families into schools to see the safety precautions firsthand, said Annette Anderson, an assistant professor and deputy director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Private schools have taken this approach to gain credibility with parents, Anderson said.

“Have parents come in to see what it looks like to social distance in classrooms, to social distance in gyms, to social distance in cafeterias,” she said. “We have to build that parent trust.”

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

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