Schools pass COVID-19 test
The nation’s classrooms might not be the superspreaders many feared
A few months into the school year, online learning is starting to wear on families already stretched to the limit by last spring’s educational disruptions. Students who struggle to learn remotely face long-term consequences after missing nearly six months of classroom instruction.
“At some point, we have to learn to live in a world where COVID exists AND children are allowed to attend school,” a group of parents in Arlington, Va., wrote Monday after school officials delayed plans to resume in-person learning. “There is no such thing as a zero-risk environment for anything. Arlington’s children will feel the effects of this decision for years to come.”
School districts that kept buildings shut this fall did so out of fears the coronavirus would spread quickly among teachers and students. But in many places where classes did resume, those worries did not materialize.
“The more and more data that I see, the more comfortable I am that children are not, in fact, driving transmission, especially in school settings,” Brooke Nichols, an infectious disease modeler at the Boston University School of Public Health, told The New York Times.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in October published a study of U.S. childcare workers concluding young children appear to be poor spreaders of the virus. The authors found teachers had no identifiably higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than other adults in a community.
Several international studies bolster the case for in-person learning. Insights for Education, an organization that advises education officials worldwide, found no correlation between schools reopening and a community’s rise in cases. School closures did not predict a decline in cases, either. And biologists at Spain’s Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya saw similar outcomes.
“The data so far are not indicating that schools are a superspreader site,” Dr. Preeti Malani, of the University of Michigan said during an Oct. 14 briefing of the Infectious Diseases Society of America on how to reopen schools safely. Fellow panelist and infectious disease expert Dr. Wendy Armstrong of Emory University agreed but said school leaders need to make decisions informed by their local community’s conditions.
Most schools with in-person classes, many of them in rural areas, require students and teachers to wear masks. They employ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mitigation strategies such as copious handwashing, staggered lunch periods, and as much physical spacing as possible.
Armstrong and Malani expressed concern that distance learning could permanently leave some students behind. “Our policies now have an effect years and years into the future,” Armstrong said.
An oft-cited study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found students not proficient in reading by the end of third grade drop out of high school four times more often than their peers. Numerous studies show high school dropout rates correlate strongly to increased risk for substance abuse, incarceration, and all of the accompanying dangers.
“Not everyone can learn remotely,” Malani said. “Not everyone has a home that’s suitable for learning remotely, and the equity issues are central along with broader health considerations like social well-being, emotional health, academic performance, and economic considerations.”
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