These states are safest for schools to reopen to students, study says

The debate over virtual, hybrid or in-person simply might come down to whether schools can open safely
By: | September 28, 2020
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Since COVID-19 closed down nearly every school back in the spring, the press has been on to try to get children, teachers and staff to return to classrooms.

Spurred on by political pressure or simply the preference to be live, schools in some states have forged ahead this fall with in-person learning. Others have tiptoed through the start under a hybrid model. Many have taken a more guarded approach and have remained virtual.

Education leaders have noted there is no substitute for face-to-face instruction and that those on the receiving end who don’t get it – students – will fall behind. But the question remains, is it safe to do so?

Personal website WalletHub recently conducted a comprehensive study that not only looked at risk of reopening schools but also looked at overall health and infrastructure of communities to determine its 2020 Safest States for Schools to Reopen. In addition, its authors spoke with a number of experts on topics ranging from: a return to the class, to challenges schools are facing and best strategies to benchmarks for being in-person.

Not surprisingly, many of the states that have done well in lessening the spread of coronavirus are also the ones at the top of the list. Five of the top six states are from New England – and the other, Connecticut, still ranks high at No. 9. At No. 1 is Vermont, which has the fewest COVID-19 cases per 100,000 children as well as the lowest teacher to pupil ratio at 10.5-1. The only one in the top 10 not from the Northeast is Nebraska at No. 10. Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also came in near the top.

Many of those at the other end of the list are from the Deep South – Mississippi, South Carolina and Arkansas are in the bottom three. A few notable states also in the bottom 10 have been those pressing hard for reopening of both schools and businesses, including Arizona (No. 47), Nevada (No. 46), Florida (No. 41) and Georgia (No. 40). Tennessee, Missouri and Utah are also among the schools least safe to reopen, according to the study.

It is important to note that even in states that have urged reopening, most are heeding to local authorities and school leaders to decide their modes of learning and timetables for a safe return. Because economic factors and equity concerns are at play, most agree that getting back in the class is preferred, when it can happen. Until then, those that remain virtual must continue to evolve and serve the needs of teachers and families.

“In-person schooling is vital for the economy because it both provides temporary supervision for children during the day and most importantly helps students have a better chance of achieving future economic success,” said Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst. “Of course, we should put everyone’s safety first, and only open schools in a safe way. Schools that are conducting online learning have a responsibility to make sure low-income students have access to the same resources as their peers, including reliable devices and Wi-Fi.”

Inside the numbers

SAFE OR NOT?

WalletHub’s ranking of states safest to reopen based on 15 key metrics, including COVID cases per 100,000 children:
1. Vermont
2. Maine
3. Pennsylvania
4. Massachusetts
5. New Hampshire
6. Rhode Island
7. Ohio
8. New Jersey
9. Connecticut
10. Nebraska
11. Wyoming
12. Wisconsin
13. Delaware
14. Virginia
15. Montana
16. New Mexico
17. Kansas
18. Washington
19. Maryland
20. Hawaii
21. Iowa
22. New York
23. Alaska
24. North Dakota
25. Minnesota
26. West Virginia
27. North Carolina
28. Colorado
29. Oregon
30. Kentucky
31. South Dakota
32. Michigan
33. Idaho
34. Indiana
35. Texas
36. Alabama
37. Illinois
38. Oklahoma
39. California
40. Georgia
41. Florida
42. Louisiana
43. Utah
44. Missouri
45. Tennessee
46. Nevada
47. Arizona
48. Arkansas
49. South Carolina
50. Mississippi

WalletHub’s results from the Safest States for Schools to Reopen study were based on a number of factors, including average class size, ratios of students to school nurses and COVID cases among state residents in past seven days. The overall methodology also accounted for school transportation shares, seniors living with school-age children and overall likelihood of infections.

Of nearly equal importance were “comprehensive school reopening guidance” measures, which looked at 12 criteria including core academics, before and after school programs, student health services, children with special needs, children of poverty, nutrition, and parent, teacher and staff choice.

The states with the fewest cases in the past 7 days – Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – were in that top 5. The disparity in the data from states at the top to those at the bottom underscored how there is a no-one-size-fits-all solution. Even in the safest states, conditions within individual schools and districts might be vastly different.

For example, WalletHub’s authors point out:

  • Share of children living in crowded housing: Vermont has the lowest at 5%, while Hawaii has the highest at 32%.
  • Fewest child COVID-19 cases per 100,000 children: Vermont has the fewest at 140.60, while Tennessee has  the most at 1,430.60.
  • Share of K-12 public school students transported through school transportation: California has the lowest at 10.04%, while Minnesota is highest at 94.26%.
  • Share of seniors living with school-age children: North Dakota is the lowest at 91%, while Hawaii has the highest at 15.12%.
  • Total current spending on elementary and secondary schools per pupil: New York spends $24,040, which is 3.2 times higher than in Utah ($7,628).
  • The good and bad: It is interesting to note that Michigan, while ranking No. 12 for lowest “Risk of COVID-19 infection’ rank due to a number of factors, is 47th when it comes to health and financial insfrastructure (and accounts for its No. 32 overall rank). On the flip side, Alaska is No. 5 on this rating but No. 38 for risk of infection. Alabama is similarly No. 10 for financial health, but No. 46 for risk of infection.

Beyond the numbers

The study’s authors leaned on several education experts to discuss reopening, conducting a Q&A on issues related to the health, wellbeing and learning outcomes for students, as well as how to best protect teachers through the pandemic.

Safety should still be top priority for those looking to reopen, those experts say.

Katsia Cadeau, a professor at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla., said in the study there are four benchmarks school districts should be considering when thinking about a return to face-to-face instruction: “monitor the rate of infection and risk, know the location of the hot spots, stay updated with CDC guidelines, and maintain a fluid mode of responding.”

Though many schools have soldiered on despite spikes of COVID-19 cases either at schools or within communities, she says there is only one solution when that happens.

“School districts should shut down and re-assess while abiding by CDC guidelines. Keep schools closed until next year, and function solely online until further notice. Therefore, disengage, collect data, assess, plan, re-engage, and collect data again.”

John Jones, an associate professor of education at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., said the biggest challenge facing schools is “making sure students don’t fall behind,” but also says that all families must be assisted in decision-making both at the district and public policy levels is vital.

“Families of means, and those able to work from home, are much better positioned to keep their kids learning even if every school in America closes,” he said. “If schools open, then close, working families get hit harder. If schools use a hybrid system, working families get hit harder. If schools open and kids or teachers start getting sick, working families get hit harder. Any way you cut it, kids in working families are at higher risk of falling behind and staying behind. And this is not just a school issue: lack of employer flexibility, lack of affordable childcare, and lack of public support all contribute to the stress of the working family.”

Likewise, ensuring that teacher protections and needs are met and heard are important to the overall success of any school or district, said Angela Farmer, Early Honors Academy director and assistant clinical professor at Mississippi State University.

“It is rather ironic that the best reopening strategies imagined are more likely to be discussed around a legislative session or an administrative meeting rather than with a group of top-performing teachers,” she said. “Teachers have devoted their lives to the art of instruction. It is they who should be consulted to imagine the best strategies, techniques, and approaches to reopen their schools in the safest most equitable, and reasonable manner to ensure that the modality is merely a variable in the equation, where learning must always be the constant.”

Schools that have remained virtual have been hamstrung by both technology issues and leaders who failed to plan properly for the upcoming year. The fallout has been felt by teachers, students and parents.

“Regrettably, perhaps the one thing policymakers and school districts should have done during the summer of 2020 is to invest in training teachers to be more effective with online learning,” said Brian Ripley Crandall, associate professor at Fairfield University. ”All indicators showed COVID-19 was not disappearing, and maybe the optimism should be applauded. Still, that was idealistic. Teachers, police officers, social workers, nurses, etc. often are flipped around by the political whims and fancies of national culture wars.”

Still, he believes there is still a window of opportunity to embrace it, and it might be needed widely again even in states that have reopened.

“In the spring, when most spaces went digital at the snap of a finger, teachers and teacher leaders learned much; it was not perfect, but adaptation occurred,” he said. “We did not know what to expect when we moved our programs online, but my teachers were creative, enthusiastic, clever, and innovative. We thought going digital would frustrate kids, but it did not. Even though our kids were in households all across the country, they were learning together and enjoyed the experience.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


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