In any other July, millions of American schoolchildren, their families, and their teachers would be eagerly anticipating, or perhaps dreading, the start of a new school year. This year is different. With coronavirus case counts increasing rapidly in many states, it’s natural to wonder whether there will be school at all.
Education is an essential foundation of society. The disruptions caused by the pandemic this spring cost millions of students precious school time and slowed or stalled their educational progress, worsening an already unequal system: The poorest children are the ones falling furthest behind. What’s more, going to school benefits the social, physical, and mental health of children.
One of us served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the others as secretaries of education in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Those experiences inform our approach to the current crisis.
We need to reopen schools this fall. But we have to do it carefully. If we move too fast, ignore science, or reopen without careful planning, this will backfire. We can reopen if we follow commonsense guidelines.
Severe illness from COVID-19 in children is rare. The risk of death from the coronavirus for an infected child is hundreds of times lower than for older adults. But serious illness, such as the recently documented rare inflammatory syndrome, does occur—just as serious illness occurs with influenza, which in most years kills 100 or more children, including many who get infected in schools. We don’t close our schools because of the risk of influenza, and we don’t necessarily need to close them because of the risk of COVID-19.
The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in schools. It’s how well communities control the coronavirus throughout the community. Such control of COVID-19 requires adhering to the three W’s—wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance—and boxing in the virus with strategic testing, effective isolation, complete contact tracing, and supportive quarantine—providing services and, if necessary, alternative temporary housing so patients and contacts don’t spread disease to others.
The CDC has released helpful guidelines for safely reopening schools, which each state and school district will need to apply to its specific context. Localities will need to develop solutions tailored to their unique needs and based on the latest information on the virus. In places where the virus is spreading explosively, it may be difficult or impossible to have in-person schooling. But in most school districts most of the time, schools should look to reopen by following these eight basic safety measures.
First, shield the most vulnerable. Children, older staff, and those who have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk should not return to school in person unless there is little or no community transmission; the school system should enable them to participate remotely to the greatest extent possible.
Second, reduce risk wherever possible. Large in-person student assemblies will be out. Cafeterias may need to close, with students instead eating in classrooms. On-site food preparation may be replaced by prepackaged meals and disposable dishware. And schools can reduce the number of surfaces touched by multiple people, for example, by keeping hallway doors open. Some essential services must continue—such as in-school meals, which many students depend on. Others may need to be modified—libraries will likely need capacity restrictions.
Because group singing increases risk, large choir rehearsals will need to stop. In areas where the coronavirus is under good control, band and orchestra practice may be able to continue. Team sports may be too risky; clusters of cases have been reported among college and professional sports teams. Recess and physical-education classes are possible if students play outdoors in small groups, wear masks, and observe physical-distancing guidelines.
For older students who are able to tele-school—high schoolers and some middle schoolers—distance learning may be a safer option, unless there is little or no virus circulating in the community.
Third, keep the virus out. Schools should forbid nonessential visits and require everyone who enters the school—not only students and staff but also parents, delivery people, and maintenance workers—to wash their hands (or apply hand sanitizer) and wear a face mask. Families must understand that their children should not go to school when sick. Class attendance policies should be revised to reflect the urgency of staying home when ill, and absences should not require a doctor’s note. Every person who works at a school, including staff members, contractors, and maintenance workers, must be given paid sick leave. Paid sick leave has been demonstrated to significantly reduce the risk of ill people continuing to work and spreading infection to others.
Fourth, wear a mask. Students, teachers, and staff should all wear masks throughout the school day, although this may be challenging for younger children. Consider adopting reward systems to encourage mask wearing and hand-washing.
Fifth, reduce mixing among students and staff. Divide students into smaller cohorts, or pods, that stay together throughout the day, rather than mixing and re-forming different class units. Remaining primarily within a smaller unit reduces the risk of extensive disease spread and makes contact tracing easier if there are cases. Staff break rooms should be closed: In hospitals, many employees became infected while socializing with other employees.
Sixth, reduce occupancy, especially indoors. Classrooms may need to operate at reduced capacity to provide increased physical distance. Schools can alleviate overcrowding by moving to a split-shift schedule (incorporating morning and afternoon sessions) or by alternating students between in-person and remote learning. Classrooms can be rearranged to reduce transmission, such as by having desks facing the same direction. If conditions allow, holding class outdoors is safer.
Seventh, implement new health and safety protocols, such as more frequent and thorough cleaning and disinfecting, including of buses. Hand-washing and sanitizing stations should be installed; their use should be required. There will need to be more cleaning during the day, when classes are in session, as well as at the end of the day. That will require safe usage and storage of cleaning products, to protect children from exposure. Sharing of classroom supplies and other items should also be limited; when sharing is necessary, equipment should be disinfected after each use.
Eighth, prepare for cases. Despite precautions, there will inevitably be coronavirus cases at schools. Schools must function as if the virus could arrive at any moment, and operate so that they can reduce transmission and provide ongoing education when it occurs. Responding well can prevent outbreaks; detailed and rehearsed protocols will enhance readiness. Daily temperature and symptom checks are advisable. Students or staff members who become sick must stay home in isolation until they have met the CDC’s criteria to return. All contacts of new cases must be traced and quarantined. Any classroom with a reported case will need to be thoroughly disinfected and, if necessary, closed temporarily. Schools should also prepare to close if necessary because of outbreaks or explosive spread in the community.
Reopening schools will not be easy, but if we all work together to stop the virus, we can succeed. Our children’s future depends on it.