Are Schools Reopening This Fall? How Can They Do So Safely?

SELF – Men’s and Women Health & Fitness

As we move into the next phase of the new coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s attention has turned toward fall, which brings with it a crucial question: Are schools reopening? Many school districts across the country are still planning to reopen with face-to-face learning this fall in one way or another. And on July 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidance emphasizing “the importance of reopening America’s schools this fall.” The organization also released a “back to school decision making tool” for parents to weigh the pros and cons of in-person vs. at-home learning, along with how much they need school-based services like meals and after-care.

That said, alarming metrics loom large. We’re nearing 150,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. Cases are on the rise in many parts of the country, and it seems likely that we’ll eventually hit 100,000 new confirmed cases per day.

It’s no wonder that amid these growing numbers, the idea of reopening schools has sparked a wave of anxiety among parents, educators, and students. Even rock stars have weighed in with opinions. And to be clear: There are no great options here. With no ideal course of action, how can schools resume in the safest manner possible? Right now, it seems there are more questions than answers. For some insight, SELF spoke with four experts to understand the current recommendations for schools reopening, benefits and risks of schools, and how to do it as safely as possible: Enriqueta Bond, Ph.D., partner at QE Philanthropic Advisors, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in education among other areas; Phyllis Meadows, M.S.N., Ph.D., R.N., senior fellow with The Kresge Foundation; Meghan May, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Infectious Disease at the University of New England College of Medicine; and Ellie Murray, Sc.D., assistant professor of Epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. Bond and Meadows recently served as co-authors on a National Academy of Science (NAS) report examining school reopening.

What are the current recommendations for reopening schools this fall?

Major public health organizations like the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and World Health Organization (WHO) have released guidance for schools trying to decide whether to reopen. But, unlike the White House and CDC’s guidelines for a phased national reopening, these school reopening guidelines don’t offer recommendations on when to reopen schools based on achieving specific public health metrics. Many advisory groups have declined to provide concrete recommendations for this. It’s messy and there’s no clear one-size-fits-all advice. Instead, these organizations’ guidelines generally offer suggestions for things to consider when making the choice to reopen schools, like how to evaluate a school’s ability to implement COVID-19 prevention measures. Ultimately, the decision about whether and how to reopen has been left to individual school districts and schools.

This has led to a variety of situations, even in different school districts that are experiencing the same COVID-19 caseload. Some are planning on a return to semi-normal, with children in classes five days per week and limited public health interventions. Others are using a hybrid model, with some days in class and some days online. Some have chosen to be fully online or at least begin the school year that way. Some will require masks; some have arranged for smaller class sizes; some are planning for only younger children to return to school buildings while older students learn from home. Nothing is universal except confusion.

What are the benefits of reopening schools for in-person learning?

Meadows notes a number of advantages to returning to a physical classroom. “In-person instruction for younger students is important for advancing learning and social and emotional development, which are critical in the early years,” she tells SELF. “In grades K-3, children are still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention.” Kids at this age often struggle with distance learning, Meadows explains, adding that the NAS committee “found that young children, in particular, are most at risk by not having in-person learning and may suffer long-term academic consequences if they fall behind.” That’s why the NAS report Meadows co-authored recommends that school districts prioritize getting kindergarten through fifth-grade students back in school, along with special needs students who would benefit most from in-person learning.

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