What’s the Deal with Reopening Schools?

Where things stand with schools reopening and COVID-19 in the U.S.

News on COVID-19 has been a bit of a mixed bag lately. We have vaccines! However, distribution is lagging throughout most of the U.S. Cases and hospitalizations are dropping, and deaths are leveling off! But a few new, more contagious strains are popping up.

All the while, things remain economically dire for many as they marinate in pandemic fatigue—tiring of this status quo and yearning for some return to the previous normal.

This is especially evident in the debate on whether or not to reopen schools. Earlier this week, I had a long conversation with a peer about the moving parts that create a tangle of information and confounding factors. We know that virtual learning is not the perfect substitute for in-person instruction but instead exacerbates existing inequities and problems in how we teach. It also has a significant impact on working parents, and by extension the economy. Still, we also know that prolonged exposure to others indoors is very unwise presently.

These are just surface-level observations; the weeds are more nuanced. So here’s a look at the landscape.

Is it safe to reopen schools?

Sorta-yes, or more accurately “generally safe when requirements are met, but not really safe right now.”

Something that’s reignited the debate is a recent article from CDC experts, which cited studies showing COVID-19 transmission in schools with in-person instruction is low. During the observed period, there was little to suggest such schools contributed (in a statistically significant manner, anyway) to coronavirus cases in surrounding communities. NPR has more context here.

However:

  • These schools used a bunch of social distancing measures. This included mask wearing, larger physical spacing between people, constant testing for the virus, and better ventilation. (More on these measures in a bit.)
  • This does not mean there were no cases reported in these schools. In fact, the article cites a wrestling tournament in Florida that led to 30% of participants testing positive for the virus. Please note—less than half of the attendees were even tested. This reaffirms the need for strict adherence to the measures above.

In addition to this article, a separate report from earlier this year found increases in local hospitalizations above a certain threshold could lead to higher COVID-19 transmission in schools. Here’s how The Intercept put it:

The study found that in counties where new Covid-19 hospitalization rates were below 36-44 per 100,000 per week — which was roughly 75 percent of U.S. counties this past summer — in-person school reopening did not lead to an increase in hospitalizations. Researchers found, however, that in places where new hospitalizations exceeded that threshold, the school reopening picture was far less clear. And because even slight increases in transmission can have significant effects, more caution, they said, is warranted.

Not the greatest news. Plus, this report doesn’t appear to include data after October 2020. While nationwide COVID-19 cases began to climb at the end of that month, it wasn’t until after October that we experienced the most severe spike to date. And while hospitalizations are finally starting to drop right now, we’re still ways off from how “low” this measure was at the end of October.

So if we’re to take this report seriously, we actually need to be more cautious with how our schools operate right now.

Additionally, there’s more data showing COVID-19 cases are actually higher among faculty and staff in reopened schools than their surrounding communities. We don’t actually know if these teachers are catching the virus at schools per se, but this still complicates matters even further.

What would it take to reopen schools appropriately?

The research shows that in-person instruction can be relatively safe as long as the school implements universal mask wearing, maintains a large supply of other PPE, tests for the virus consistently, and reconfigures existing spaces so faculty, staff, and students can be physically distant from one another. This last one would include:

  • Using large spaces like gyms for instruction, since many classrooms can’t fit a socially distanced class
  • Relying on outdoor spaces, which not every school can do
  • Improving ventilation in facilities
  • Broadening digital access, since some schools won’t be able to house all of their students and might need some classes to remain at home on some or all days, and since some students and faculty might be at a higher risk of contracting the virus
  • Changing school transportation so students can be safe in transit, which for instance might require more trips for buses

These don’t account for costs of “catching up” on lost educational progress from the past few months (e.g., the cost of summer schooling), nor the costs incurred by teachers (e.g., potentially providing their own PPE, paying for their internet if teaching virtually) and parents (child care costs for those who work, plus previously mentioned costs if they are teachers).

Obviously, doing any or all of these things won’t be cheap, and the exact cost isn’t clear right now. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) estimated it would cost $116.5 billion to reopen schools nationwide, whereas the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) said the cost was somewhere between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion. (Yowza.)

However, these estimates were made back in June, before months of more severe COVID-19 case spikes, the discovery of new virus strains, and the introduction of vaccines.

There’s also the question of how state and local governments’ declines from the pandemic and recession will impact this (likely growing) cost. School districts receive roughly 90% of their revenue from these governments. States frequently use a combination of taxes to fund schools, which frequently includes sales and income taxes that have seen better days. And then there’s the question of equity in school funding with the taxes we use, something that predated last March.

Even with the billions of dollars included in the CARES Act (a little under $70 billion for K-12) and the more recent stimulus package (about $54 billion for K-12), there’s still a hole of some tens of billions of dollars if we’re following the CCSSO’s guess from last year.

(Chalkbeat explains how helpful the latest relief is for schools here.)

And then there is teachers’ willingness to instruct in person. Back in September, a survey conducted for the AFT, NAACP, and other groups found teachers were skeptical about reopening schools for in-person instruction. There was support for reopening, but it hinged greatly on schools taking the necessary precautions, like improving sanitation practices and testing constantly. Plus, teachers shared that their workload for virtual learning was significantly heavier.

Also in this survey: Majorities among parents and teachers believed the worst of the virus was behind us at that point. As mentioned earlier, this wasn’t the case. We can assume a new survey along the same lines would collect different, less rosy responses.

Of course, we don’t really have to assume so much since we’re seeing teacher dissatisfaction manifest in real time. Here’s a quick rundown of how things are going in Chicago:

  • At the beginning of this month, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) decided to reopen its schools, beginning with pre-K and special ed students. They would have the option to remain at home for instruction, but teachers would have to return to schools.
  • The teachers union (CTU) publicly asked for several improvements to the plan, like making the return for teachers voluntary and delaying in-person instruction until teachers get vaccinated.
  • Meanwhile, the teachers themselves were not happy—they would have to juggle both virtual and in-person instruction, the latter requiring they potentially risk their health. Some participated in protests (one being very clever), while most students opted to stay at home anyway.
  • The CTU held a vote on what to do, and over 70% of members agreed to refuse returning to in-person instruction.
  • The union went on to threaten a strike. The school district said this wasn’t legal.
  • President Joe Biden was asked to weigh in on reopening schools in general, and his response about “doing so safely” was used by both CPS and the teachers union to justify their opposing stances.

Yeah, that’s a mess. Luckily, both sides are now negotiating terms for reopening schools. While still ongoing, the plan now includes bumping teachers up on the vaccine prioritization list. Meanwhile, in-person pre-K and special ed classes will resume next week.

I condensed a lot of this. If you’re interested Chalkbeat has a live thread on the saga here, but the main thing I want you to take from this is that, in addition to billions of dollars in federal relief for schools, vaccinating teachers needs to be included in any plan to reopen schools.

How close are we to meeting these requirements?

In terms of vaccines—not very close. Vaccine rollout has been slow (though it is gaining speed) while supply has been a separate issue.

As for money—more funds and resources for schools will require another economic stimulus package. Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion rescue plan does include $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen, plus billions for child care providers and working parents (this issue with schools overlaps here). However, this money is not a given and wouldn’t reach schools until March anyway.

The verdict: Without improvements on either of these fronts, reopening schools now—when cases and hospitalizations remain exceedingly high and new COVID-19 strains are in the mix—seems pretty unwise.

We don’t have the resources to do things properly, and there’s a good deal of uncertainty because of the stuff we do and do not know. In the meantime, school districts could get creative in reconciling their reopening plans with teachers’ concerns. During our conversation, my peer suggested schools recruit teachers’ aides and volunteers to help staff schools reopen safely while teachers have the choice of remaining at home. At least this would help address the child care part of this problem for working parents and get kids out of (soul-crushing) virtual settings while giving teachers some say in their work conditions.

If you have any thoughts on this proposal, leave a comment below or shoot me an email.

Anyway, things won’t improve significantly unless cases continue to drop, vaccine distribution among teachers improves, we get a better idea of how effective vaccines are against the new variants, and the federal government moves forward with additional aid for schools. Until then, we shouldn’t ask for or expect large scale reopening plans.

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