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What it would really take to reopen American schools

Reopening schools is a huge controversy. It doesn’t have to be.

Small desks spaced 6 feet apart in a classroom, with colorful arrow stickers on the floor.
A first-grade classroom at Shiloh Hills Elementary School in Spring Township, Pennsylvania, on August 21, 2020, when teachers and administrators were preparing to reopen.
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

What do we need to open schools safely?

It’s a question on millions of Americans’ minds as the Covid-19 pandemic lurches into its 11th month, with many children still learning at home, many parents beyond burned out, and some of them forced to quit their jobs to take care of kids.

It’s also a question with seemingly limitless answers, as states, school districts, and teachers unions have been left to negotiate safety among themselves — with, until recently, little guidance from the federal government.

In Arizona, for example, many school districts are open for in-person instruction, even as the state posts one of the highest test positivity rates in the country, at close to 15 percent. In Fairfax County, Virginia, meanwhile, some parents were outraged after a teachers union implied in a now-deleted tweet that schools shouldn’t reopen until students are vaccinated — which probably won’t be until 2022. (The union now says the tweet referenced a “best-case scenario,” not a demand.)

The issue has taken on more urgency because President Joe Biden has promised to get students back into schools in his first 100 days. And a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said that schools could open safely with certain precautions in place, but it has already been criticized by some for focusing on a relatively narrow group of schools and for failing to take into account the spread of new and concerning virus variants.

The controversy around schools is heated, with parents mad at teachers and unions, teachers mad at public officials, and students in some places staring down the possibility of remote education continuing into the fall.

Yet despite all this chaos, public health experts and many teachers actually agree on the core precautions necessary to open schools: universal masking, keeping students in stable cohorts, proper ventilation, and regular testing of students, teachers, and staff.

“Today in most of the United States, if you could have those other things available, it would be for the most part safe to open schools even without teachers being vaccinated,” Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and the director for the Center for Digital Health at Brown University, told Vox.

Teacher and staff vaccinations remain an important piece of the puzzle, but public health experts and teachers unions alike say that with the right precautions and testing, schools could open as the vaccine rollout continues. “Widespread, regular testing remains critical to school reopening, and combined with the right steps and federal support — even before the new vaccines are widely available — the nation’s more than 98,000 public schools could be open soon,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a January op-ed with Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Testing and mask-wearing are relatively simple public health measures that experts have been stressing since nearly the beginning of the pandemic, so why does school reopening remain such a thorny problem? A big part of the answer is money. A lot of school districts in America just don’t have the resources to do what’s necessary to keep Covid-19 under control. And any new funding is on hold as Democrats and Republicans in Congress negotiate the latest relief package.

Overall, the right path is “neither about opening up all schools right now nor about keeping them closed until everybody’s vaccinated,” Ranney said. There’s a middle ground where many schools can operate now with relative safety, but that middle ground “depends on funding and political will.”

The school reopening process has been rife with mistrust and controversy

In the spring of 2020, schools in all 50 states shut down to help stop the spread of Covid-19. And, as in so many areas of American life, reopening has been a complete mess.

The Trump administration never developed a nationwide reopening strategy for schools. Instead, President Trump spent the summer issuing all-caps demands for schools to open. “May cut off funding if not open,” he warned in a July tweet (he did not in fact have the authority to do this).

As a result, states and individual school districts were largely left to their own devices when it came to developing reopening plans. Some districts chose to reopen schools with few precautions, even in the face of surging levels of the virus — for example, a Georgia high school came in for criticism when a student’s viral photos showed its hallways packed, with some students not wearing masks. Many large, urban school districts, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, remained completely or almost completely remote. And many districts in the country have been somewhere in the middle, open on a hybrid model, or toggling between hybrid and fully remote as cases in the area wax and wane.

Confusing all this decision-making is the fact that children are less likely than adults to become severely ill from Covid-19, and appear less likely to spread the virus. That means schools — especially for younger students — could, in theory, be safer to reopen than other venues like bars or restaurants. But teachers and staff in schools are still at risk; the American Federation of Teachers knows of at least 530 school employees who died of Covid-19 in 2020, according to the New York Times. And while it’s not clear how many of them contracted the virus at work, many say their districts are not enforcing the protocols, like masking and ventilation, necessary to keep them safe.

Biden has promised a new approach, and has already signed a slate of executive actions aimed at getting schools better guidance and more personal protective equipment. In January, the CDC — which is trying to rebuild public trust under the Biden administration — released a report stating that schools could open safely with the proper precautions in place. “As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the report’s authors stated. And, they said, “Accumulating data now suggest a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery.”

Meanwhile, teachers and some public health experts have noted that the January CDC report was based, in part, on data from rural school districts in Wisconsin, where the student population was majority white. The same may not apply to larger, more crowded schools, especially in majority Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities that have been disproportionately hard hit by Covid. “When I looked at the demographics, and the population, and the school size” in the Wisconsin study, “that stuff makes a huge difference,” Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, told Vox.

Overall, reopening debates in many places have devolved into a battle of parents versus teachers. In Fairfax County, for example, the local teachers union came under fire for tweeting that a safe return to schools would include 14 days without community spread, and staff and student vaccinations. Since vaccines have not yet been tested in young children, those conditions are unlikely to be met for many months, if not years. The tweet touched off a firestorm of parent complaints, with one father writing in a Washington Post op-ed that either schools should open or teachers should give up their priority for vaccinations.

But Kimberly Adams, president of the union, told Vox that the tweet, which also tagged the president and vice president, was “a best-case scenario to tell the new administration our hopes and dreams.” Teachers in Fairfax County are currently being vaccinated, and the district plans to have students back in school buildings by early March. “We know full well that there’s not a student vaccine at this time,” Adams said.

Still, the controversy over the tweet was emblematic of a larger adversarial mood in the country, in which the fight over schools pits frustrated parents against worried teachers, with local and state leaders lacking the resources, and sometimes the will, to broker a peace. In fact, however, there is an emerging consensus on what would make schools safe — or at least safer — to reopen. And it’s not as impossible as it might seem to reconcile the concerns of teachers with the needs of parents and kids.

Four basic precautions could make schools much safer

For any school that wants to reopen — or stay open safely — for in-person learning, the process starts with four basic precautions:

  • Universal masking — “without that, in the United States right now it’s very challenging to say that it’s safe” to bring people back to school buildings, Ranney said.
  • Grouping students and teachers into stable cohorts so that if one person gets the virus, only a limited number of others are exposed.
  • Proper ventilation — anything from “being able to open windows to having better HEPA filters for the HVAC unit,” Ranney said.
  • Some level of asymptomatic testing for staff and students to spot cases and prevent outbreaks.

The last is crucial. “Testing is an early warning system, particularly for a virus that transmits asymptomatically,” Shah and Weingarten write in their op-ed. “Even after effective and safe vaccines become more widely available, regular testing is going to be needed to avoid outbreaks and protect children, and their families, because children do not yet have a vaccine approved for use.”

With these four precautions in place, many experts believe it would be safe to open schools even if teachers and staff are not yet fully vaccinated. Still, teachers and staff should be vaccinated as soon as possible, many say, to give them added protection. “In so many states, teachers are getting a lot of thank-yous from state governments but are not being prioritized for vaccinations,” Gross said.

The emergence of new virus variants may complicate the picture somewhat, Ranney said. Schools are currently closed in Britain, where the B.1.1.7 variant is dominant, and there’s little data yet on how that variant or others affects transmission within schools. But the new variants don’t fundamentally change the precautions needed, experts say.

“The same intervention strategies apply to the new variants,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist and professor at George Mason University, told Vox, “but because we’re seeing more transmissibility, this means that we need to be even more vigilant.” In particular, the new variants make testing even more crucial in order to identify cases in schools and communities and shut down if necessary, Ranney said.

For now, though, Ranney and others believe many schools around the US could open if they had the money for masks, ventilation, testing, and keeping kids in somewhat stable groups. The trouble is, many don’t.

“I’ve always said, since the start of this, schools can be safe,” Gross said. “The problem is it requires a pretty big investment, and we’re not seeing that in a lot of places.”

Districts that are able to enact precautions have seen positive results. For example, researchers at Duke and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill worked with a group of North Carolina districts in the fall to enact precautions including student and staff masking, social distancing, and contact tracing of any Covid-19 cases. The researchers then studied 11 districts that were open for in-person learning, with a total of more than 90,000 students and staff — 55 percent of students were white, 21 percent were Black, 15 percent were Latinx, and 2 percent were Asian American. Over a nine-week period, the researchers found just 32 cases of in-school transmission, and no cases of a child transmitting the virus to an adult.

But not all school districts around the country have close relationships with public health experts, or the resources to enact their recommendations. And the districts with the least money for mitigation efforts also often serve majority Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities who have been hit the hardest by the virus. “Schools that have the fewest resources and that are least able to keep their kids and their staff safe are also the schools that serve primarily minority students,” Ranney noted.

Biden’s Covid-19 stimulus proposal, released in January, could help. It includes $130 billion specifically for reopening schools, along with $350 billion for state, local, and territorial governments that could also be used to help schools. But the plan still needs to be approved by Congress — and Senate Republicans are pushing a significantly smaller package, one that includes no money for state and local governments. Importantly, no money is coming until Congress passes something.

Even with money, schools will still need guidance from the federal government, something that was sorely lacking under Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Districts need a playbook “informed by the very best of public health,” Ranney said. “The school systems that have done the best job of reopening have had medical or public health professionals on their reopening committees.” Biden has directed the Department of Health and Human Services to develop new guidance for schools on masking, testing, and cleaning, so more help on the information front, at least, could be coming soon.

There is another complicating factor, too: community spread. At a certain point, experts say, case rates in a community can become too high for schools to operate safely — or simply so high that it’s impossible to keep schools open because students and staff are constantly in quarantine. For schools to open, spread in a community should be below what the CDC considers “high incidence,” or 50 cases of the virus per 100,000 people over a 28-day period, Tara C. Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University, told Vox in an email. Authorities “should also factor in local conditions in hospitals, especially ICUs — can they handle additional cases that may be related to a return to schools?”

Because of these considerations, the CDC report recommended that communities take actions to reduce overall spread — in particular, restricting indoor dining — to help schools operate safely. Experts say families may need to be vigilant about out-of-school socializing as well. “If you have the world’s safest school but all the kids are going and socializing without masks after school, you’re still going to have a lot of virus,” Ranney said.

But those trade-offs may not yet have been internalized in communities around the country — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, recently announced that restaurants in New York City would reopen for indoor dining in mid-February, despite high levels of coronavirus transmission in the region.

Overall, the situation in American schools is solvable. But it will require two things that have been in short supply throughout the pandemic — federal aid, and a willingness to keep businesses closed if necessary. It remains to be seen whether a new administration will change that, but one thing is for certain: Everyone involved is eager for change.

As Gross put it, “we would like to be in school.”

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