A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine strongly recommends that public school districts that are planning to reopen physically come fall prioritize the needs of young students in grades K-5 and students who have disabilities. The report borrows from recommendations from the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Federation of Teachers in regards to reopening and builds consensus from these reports on the best possible practices to reopen these spaces safely.
In an interview with NPR, one committee member, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, pointed to the fact that American officials have failed children in more way than one since the outbreak of the pandemic. “First and foremost, that we have done such a terrible job containing this pandemic. Secondly, that we closed schools … abruptly without any good plan about how to transition to distance learning and without adequate infrastructure for so many kids. And third, that the moment we closed schools, we didn’t immediately start planning about how to reopen them,” he said.
The report makes nine major recommendations. The first is that schools should take into consideration that remote learning is a risk for children — particularly young children and children who are vulnerable. These groups, above others, struggle the most with distance learning. It also recommends adult staff wear surgical masks and that students and teachers have consistent access to sinks, soap, and hand sanitizer, and that teachers should “practice physical distancing” and also limit large gatherings. Interestingly enough, the report says that there’s not a ton of evidence that vigorous cleaning of surfaces will be necessary or a meaningful way to combat the pandemic. The report calls on states and the federal government to provide significant funding for schools to be able to follow all of these conditions and keep children as safely as possible.
But will parents return their young children to school? It’s hard to say. One poll conducted earlier this month suggested that some 59% of parents polled wouldn’t send their children back to school — but many parents likely won’t have the option to keep their children at home, financially. Despite that, many school districts across the country have decided to remain remote for the 2020-2021 school year, at least until transmission rates within communities start to dip. In Milwaukee, Austin, and Nashville, school officials have committed to doing the first few weeks of school in a remote setting. Meanwhile, San Diego, Los Angeles, Dekalb County schools, and the Washington Township District in Indiana are all committed to doing a fully remote school year.
While Christakis points out that the increasing cases of COVID-19 aren’t due to schools being open, many public health experts are concerned about returning to school when cases are still rising and community transmission is still as high as it is.