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Reopening elementary schools: How it’s done matters

Elementary school settings are not somehow naturally COVID-proof. These schools still represent a real transmission risk with broad impacts.

Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul recently announced plans to fully reopen elementary schools in February for the first time since March 2020, when they were shuttered in response to the pandemic. In-person school serves multiple critical functions in our society, including educating children, allowing valuable social interaction that supports children’s development, and serving as child care while parents and other caregivers work. Certainly getting children safely back to school should be a top priority.

However evidence strongly suggests that halting in-person school was important for dampening community spread of coronavirus. But the virtual education, offered in lieu of in-person school, often falls short of meeting the needs of children and families. This dilemma of educating children in the context of the pandemic can be addressed but it requires resources, transparent leadership, and imaginative approaches to how schools function.

Elementary school settings are not somehow naturally COVID-proof. These schools still represent a real transmission risk with broad impacts. Primary school aged children are more likely to be asymptomatic if infected with coronavirus and they may have lesser potential to spread to each person they encounter compared to teens and adults. But going to school brings kids into contact with many other children and adults, so an infected young person attending school has many opportunities to transmit. Further, even an asymptomatic infection in a child can be hazardous, because it could be a link in a chain of infections that ultimately infects vulnerable school staff or family members for whom the consequences of COVID may be far more serious.

Layering interventions

Each intervention that a school might apply (masks, ventilation, distancing, regular testing etc.) that can stymie virus spread is also fallible. For instance, some children may not wear masks well for six-hour periods, strict adherence to 6 feet of distancing is inherently difficult in classroom settings, and air exchange rates in classrooms varies. You can make a setting like a school more outbreak-resistant by layering several interventions, so that if there is a gap in one precaution, the virus can be stopped by another. However, each intervention requires investment in staff, materials, and/or the facilities.

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Minneapolis Public Schools’ plan for the February re-open is skimpy when it comes to layering protections. It places no limits on class size, does not require 6 feet of separation between individual students or small clusters of students, has no organized plan to regularly test students or staff, and will have children and adults indoors, unmasked daily – during breakfast and lunch.

Rachel Widome
Rachel Widome
Concern about the Twin City districts’ plan to open school imminently is heightened by several new developments that could soon send COVID-19 rates higher in the Twin Cities. Bars and restaurants are re-opening, and high school sports are re-starting. And perhaps most significantly a new, highly transmissible Covid variant has arrived in Minnesota. When transmission levels are high stronger protections and more layers of them are needed.

Plan for the longer term

Instead of scrambling to quickly reopen when community risk is likely to be rising and when the districts do not have the resources to adequately layer precautions, Minneapolis and St. Paul could instead first address the most pressing consequences of the shutdown in a safe and feasible manner, while planning for the longer term as far as approaches to counteract the inequitable impacts of the shutdown.

Evan Roberts
Evan Roberts
One issue that should be given immediate attention is that virtual education has failed children in some demographic groups. For instance in St. Paul, 60% of Black, Hispanic, American Indian, special education, and English language learner students in grades 6-12 received failing marks in the first quarter, which was entirely virtual (this is compared to 12% of all SPPS students in grades 6-12 in 2019 when school was held in person).

However, it is not clear that fully opening elementary schools now is the route to actually getting these kids back in the classroom and closing gaps. American families of color have been skeptical of the safety of schools in the Covid era, often opting for virtual education during the pandemic even when schools have reopened. Given long-standing failures by school districts to deliver high quality education to students of color it makes sense that these families’ confidence in schools to protect their children may be low. Additionally, there is a risk in our resource-strapped districts that having schools run instruction both in person and virtually and would mean that the quality of virtual learning, which families of color are more likely to select, may decline.

Looking toward fall

Now, school leaders should be looking toward fall, when hopefully most students will finally be back in the classroom and will need to be caught up from a year of disruption. One option would be to put resources into optional summer academy in July/August with priority given to students who fell most behind in virtual education. Instruction at this time of the year would be inherently safer compared to the planned imminent winter reopening. In the summer, classroom windows could be opened or schools could conduct outside instruction. Further, by July or August more school staff will have protection from vaccination. Resources could also be reserved for hiring more staff for the 2021/22 school year, allowing students to learn in smaller groups which is both helps prevent virus spread and could also boost their educational catch-up.

Finally, trust may be one of the most critical, yet underappreciated elements to a successful reopening. When district leaders open schools, they are asking people to take on greater risk in relation to a deadly virus, even if other risks incurred from the shutdown are simultaneously being reduced. A school cannot operate smoothly or effectively if teachers and/or families do not trust that school leadership is committed to keeping them safe.

 Rachel Widome, Ph.D., is an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota., Evan Roberts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology and population studies at the University of Minnesota.

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