Why in-person elementary school should be a first step for reopening

'There are many things that happen when kids are together in school with adults that you cannot replicate in distance learning.'
By: | July 15, 2020
Younger children don't have the skills to keep themselves in engaged in online learning, and not all students may have adults at home who can monitor whether they are participating. (GettyImages/Westend61)Younger children don't have the skills to keep themselves in engaged in online learning, and not all students may have adults at home who can monitor whether they are participating. (GettyImages/Westend61)

District leaders should prioritize full-time, in-person instruction for grades K-5 and students in special education when reopening schools later this summer, researchers at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine said Wednesday.

Administrators must weigh the health risks of bringing staff, students and teachers back against the educational risks of not providing in-person instruction, says the report released Wednesday by the organization’s Board on Science Education.

“The truth is that all students benefit from in-person learning,” Heidi Schweingruber, the board’s director, said in a webinar. “There are many things that happen when kids are together in school with adults that you cannot replicate in distance learning.”

Younger children don’t have the skills to keep themselves engaged in online learning, and not all students have adults at home who can monitor whether they are participating, Schweingruber said.


More from DA: What pediatricians say about reopening schools


Also, students from lower-income households will continue to have problems accessing online learning, she said.

At the same time, district leaders should ensure they have sufficient hand sanitizer and surgical masks—not just face coverings—for all teachers and staff, the report recommends.

Schools should also implement social distancing procedures and limit large gatherings while also organizing students into small cohorts that remain together at all times.

Collaborating on school safety

Administrators should work closely with local health officials to develop school safety plans, monitor community transmission of COVID-19 and decide when buildings need to be closed, the board recommended.

Local health agencies can help school leaders assess cleaning procedures as well as building ventilation systems.


More from DA: Virus spikes force big districts to go back to school online-only


Education leaders, along with local officials, should also consider forming a diverse community task force that can consider communications plans, school staffing and financial resources, among other issues.

To better inform reopening decisions, more research is urgently needed on how young children spread COVID-19 and the role of schools in transmitting the disease, the report says.

Embedding equity in reopening plans

In their reopening plans, school leaders must also recognize that the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak have disproportionately impacted communities of color, said study director Kenne Dibner.

“The inequities in the COVID-19 pandemic and the inequities in education are likely to compound one another in ways that are likely to have catastrophic consequences in some communities,” Dibner said.

Schools provide supervision, meals, healthcare and mental health services that many lower-income families rely on. These families, some of which include essential options, don’t have any other childcare options if schools close, Dibner said.

A significant number of these children also attend the under-resourced schools where educators may face more challenges in implementing social distancing, online learning technology and other safety precautions, she said.


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