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July 31, 2020

Weekly line: The 3 biggest obstacles to reopening schools

Daily Briefing

    August in America typically comes with back-to-school preparations for children, parents, and teachers. But with America's coronavirus epidemic at a new peak, August's onset this year comes with a divisive question: Should children go back to school?

    Will it be safe for children to go back to school this fall?

    That question has sparked widespread debate throughout the country, as the Trump administration, some state and local officials, and some public health experts have issued sharp calls for schools to reopen. But not all state and local officials or public health experts agree, and many teachers and parents are hesitant for schools to resume in-person classes amid the epidemic.

    No matter which side of the debate you stand on, however, most people agree that schools face some significant challenges to safely reopening. Here are three of the most difficult obstacles schools are up against as they weigh whether to reopen this fall:

    1. We're still not sure how much children transmit the coronavirus (though we have some concerning clues)

    Much of the debate around whether schools should reopen this fall hinges on how the coronavirus affects children and whether they'll transmit the novel coronavirus to each other, their parents, and their teachers or other school staff. But answering those questions is challenging, because we don't yet have a robust evidence base on those topics.

    There are two main reasons for that: First, the novel coronavirus is just that—new—so researchers haven't yet had the chance to study the topics in depth or long-term. Second, in the United States, schools were among the first institutions that many states shut down when the country's coronavirus epidemic reached its initial peak in the spring. As a result, children largely have been staying home and physically distancing along with the rest of their families—in many cases, doing so for longer than other family members, some of whom have had to continue reporting to work in-person. Therefore, the possibility for the coronavirus to spread among children has been comparatively lower than the potential for the virus to spread among older Americans.

    Still, we have some evidence on how the coronavirus might spread among children and how becoming infected could affect them.

    Evidence suggests children may not be immune from experiencing complications related to the new coronavirus. Over the past several months, for example, doctors have reported a growing number of cases of a rare, life-threatening, multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children that has been linked to the virus. In addition, CDC notes that some U.S. children with the coronavirus have died—although the mortality rate among school-age children is far lower than the rate among adults, and children so far appear significantly less likely than adults to experience severe complications related to coronavirus infection.

    When it comes to transmission, some research has indicated children infected with the coronavirus may not be as contagious as adults, and other research has suggested they're less likely to become infected.

    But that doesn't mean children won't spread the virus to their families, teachers, or other older adults. For example, a large study published this month in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that children in South Korea ages 10 to 19 spread the new coronavirus at about the same rate as adults, and that children in that age group were the most likely of any age group to spread the virus to others in their households. The researchers also found that children ages 0 to 9 years transmitted the coronavirus to household contacts, though at the lowest rate of any age group. Those findings led the researchers to conclude that children could contribute to community transmission of the novel coronavirus if they attend school.

    And although some evidence from countries in Europe and Asia that have reopened schools suggests younger children may not spread or contract the new coronavirus as much as adults—and that schools can reopen safely—those studies aren't easily applicable to the United States. Those countries in general had their coronavirus outbreaks under control when schools reopened, with much lower rates of transmission overall when compared with the United States.

    Further, recent data from coronavirus hot spots in America suggests children aren't invulnerable to worsening outbreaks, such as those the United States is seeing now. In Florida, which currently is an epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic, data from the state's Department of Health showed that the number of reported coronavirus cases among people ages 17 and under in the state spiked by 34% in just eight days, rising from 23,170 as of July 16 to 31,150 as of July 24. What's more, the number of people ages 17 and under in Florida who had to hospitalized because of the coronavirus increased by 23% over that time, rising from 246 as of July 16 to 303 as of July 24.

    2. Funding for supplies and staff needed to reopen safely

    Another major impediment to schools safely reopening is the costs they'd incur to procure the supplies and staff necessary to implement measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and requirements for more vigorous cleanings, physical distancing, and isolation in instances of coronavirus exposure.

    And because public schools already are commonly underfunded, many teachers worry that, without the funding necessary to support these new initiatives, they'll have to shoulder the costs themselves.

    Those costs could be exorbitant, according to some estimates. The Council of Chief State School Officers estimated that safely reopening schools this fall would cost between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion, while the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said schools would need $116.5 billion in additional funding. A separate analysis by the Association of School Business Officials International and AASA/School Superintendents Association estimated that the cost of complying with coronavirus-related safety guidelines would be about $1,778,139 per school district, with larger districts potentially seeing significantly higher costs.

    3. Teachers' and parents' opinions

    Perhaps the biggest obstacle is pushback from parents and teachers who worry that schools can't safely reopen given the current state of America's coronavirus epidemic.

    AFT, a union that represents 1.7 million school employees, even has gone so far as to give its members permission to strike if their schools plan to reopen without putting adequate safety measures in place—such as face masks and physical distancing requirements—and to offer legal and financial assistance to help members navigate the matter.

    Lily Eskelsen García, the union's president, said, "Nobody wants to see students back in the classroom more than educators, but when it comes to their safety, we're not ready to take any options off the table."

    Teachers aren't the only ones concerned. Americans overall, and particularly parents, are worried about reopening schools safely this fall, according to an Associated Press/NORC poll of 1,057 U.S. adults conducted from July 16 to July 20.

    The poll found that 31% of respondents thought K-12 schools should not reopen at all this fall, while 46% thought they should reopen only with major adjustments. Meanwhile, 14% of respondents thought K-12 schools could reopen with minor adjustments, and 8% said they should reopen as normal. Among respondents with school-age children, 35% thought K-12 schools should not reopen, 41% thought they should reopen only with major adjustments, 13% thought they could reopen with minor adjustments, and 11% thought they should reopen as normal.

    Further, the poll found that 56% of all respondents said they were extremely or very concerned that reopening schools will cause a surge in new coronavirus cases, while 24% said they were somewhat concerned and 20% said they were not very or not at all concerned about a surge resulting from schools reopening. The poll also found, however, that 76% of parents were concerned about their children falling behind academically because of America's coronavirus epidemic, and 65% were worried about their ability to handle other responsibilities if their children do not return to school.

    According to the New York Times' Giovanni Russonello, Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, during a recent interview said, "I have yet to see any data where there are appreciable numbers of people who say, 'Yes, I want my kids back in school.'" He continued, "They want their kids back in school, but not right now. … It shows you how nervous Americans are about coronavirus, because let's face it, virtual learning couldn't be worse—yet large numbers of parents say, 'We're not putting our kids back in school.'"

    What can be done?

    Public health experts largely agree that, to safely reopen schools, America must have drastically lower rates of coronavirus transmission. To get there, some epidemiologists believe the country must resort to stringent stay-at-home orders and business closures like those implemented in many countries that have successfully contained their coronavirus outbreaks.

    However, other experts say the country can effectively lower its transmission rate by adhering to physical distancing and mask-wearing guidelines while also ramping up contact tracing and isolation requirements for individuals who test positive for or have been exposed to the coronavirus.

    And Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that areas already seeing low coronavirus infection rates could attempt to reopen schools and "be part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know."

    But despite the far-ranging conflict and unknowns regarding whether and when schools should reopen, there's one certainty: The coronavirus epidemic is changing America's education system, and Americans will be waiting to see how those changes play out in coming months.

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