COVID-19: Back to School?

One of the first states hit by COVID-19 (some would say, the first) was Washington. It, along with California and New York, formed the epicenter, the focus of the initial invasion of the deadly virus.

But Washington state did a terrific job containing the virus. Perhaps one of the reasons was quick action by state government, including closing public schools very early.

As for how COVID-19 affects, and transmits, through school students — there’s a lot still to be learned. But we do know that all ages can get it, and all ages can transmit it to others. We know that school brings massive numbers together, and exposes them to each other in settings that make the spread of infection far too likely. We know that it can be especially pernicious, because so many are asymptomatic and can spread the disease like wildfire, without even knowing it.

Re-opening schools exposes every child to every other child. That in turn, expsoses every member of each child’s immediate family. That’s most of the population. My opinion: the level of exposure is far too great, the risk is far too high, it is not possible at this time to re-open schools safely.

But you don’t have to agree with me, to worry about the fact that nobody is even talking about it. We all “assume” schools are re-opening, but I’ve heard nothing about plans to make testing available — training for staff to recognize symptoms — protective measures (will there be masks? social distancing?) — will all be required to attend, or given the option?

Will teachers (and other staff) have no choice other than “risk yourself or lose your job”?

What if they have at-risk family members? Elderly parents, a spouse with diabetes or cancer, or another high-risk group: a newborn baby. Is it “risk your entire family or lose your job”?

Nobody is even talking about this. School starts in about a month? Start the conversation. Not just on blogs, facebook/twitter/instragram etc. Write that letter to the editor of the local paper. Send that letter/email (handwritten letters work best) to government officials. Please do it soon.

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14 responses to “COVID-19: Back to School?

  1. Harold Brooks

    I can assure you conversations about what is going to happen are going on at lots of local levels. My wife is a middle school pre-engineering teacher who is supposed to be changing districts to start a new program and things are really up in the air about what classrooms/teaching will be like in the fall around here. The American Pediatric Association has pointed out the mental health costs to children if there is no return to classrooms in the fall. It’s a terrible dilemma.

  2. Children at school will allow the virus to blow up and spread with dramatic speed. We will struggle to unring the bell if we try it. We can’t go back to this idea until we have herd immunity established. Some states or communities will try it and have to walk it back when infection rates blow up. Maybe we will learn from the states that re-opened too soon and too much, but I doubt it. There is less pressure to re-open school because it is not the “economy” but there will be some pressure. School’s out!

    There is some alarming stuff happening with the climate. polar heating is pretty dramatic. Pretty hot year with no el nino bump. Nobody is working on a vaccine for global warming issue, but it’s covid 24 7.

  3. Susan Anderson

    PBS Newshour talked about this last night. Teachers, janitors, etc. include those who are vulnerable.

    I’m not sure this link includes all of what I noticed; it was a good discussion.

  4. I trust your commentary on climate science, because there is a clear consensus on the science and you have a deep familiarity with that science.

    This pandemic is quite new, however; there are many aspects of it where consensus hasn’t fully developed, and many of us who approach it as outsiders don’t have enough familiarity with the science to be a reliable source for others.

    I would gently suggest that on questions like this (effects of school closures) we all need to convey the fact that the evidence is not yet fully clear. For example, there is some evidence in the literature that school closings are not particularly effective at containing the virus, e.g.

    * Esposito & Principi 2020. School Closure During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) PandemicAn Effective Intervention at the Global Level? JAMA Pediatrics, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1892

    * Hsiang, S. et al. 2020 The effect of large-scale anti-contagion policies on the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature … see discussion of individual policies by Kevin Drum here:

    I’m not arguing that either these or other similar arguments against school closings are *correct* but I think it’s important to be clear that this is a very new situation, the evidence is mixed at best, and we should avoid a false sense of certainty in either direction.


    • Children are humans; the virus can be contracted by humans (indeed, the virus is excellent at attaching to human cells); infected humans usually become infectious themselves; human to human contagion is high. That first viewpoint article (not a peer-reviewed paper) doesn’t argue against any of these points and most of its points are assumptions and suggestive results from studies, plus reference to weak data (e.g. the percentage of cases below 10 years of age – here in NZ, many children can’t be tested so case age breakdown is skewed).

      Is the above too simplistic?

      It may well be that there are overall negative consequences of school closures but is there any reason to think that avoiding the congregating of humans will not have any impact on the spread of the virus?

  5. Yes, some of these conversations are indeed happening, including those about how to accomplish physical distancing within schools. I know, because it’s a matter of public record, that such discussions are being had within local school boards, and in the IMO rather unfortunately-named Covid adaptation taskforce called “Accelerate SC.”

    What I’m not hearing is any consideration of the option of *not* reopening physical schools. I recognize that the costs (in many dimensions, including educational) of not reopening are very significant. However, in my opinion, it is possible that the costs of opening will exceed the costs of staying closed, and I wish the powers that be would consider the question seriously.

    A couple of straws in the wind. As mentioned previously, I’ve spent a fair amount of time substitute teaching in public schools in the last year or two. Yesterday, a co-worker in one of those schools gave me the job tip that her position was about to be posted. I told her thanks, but no thanks; there was no way under present conditions that I would be in the classroom. She said that she understood; she’d made the same decision, and was moreover planning to home-school her daughter for the coming year.

    Well, if there’s two of us, there’s got to be a lot more than that. What will enrollment look like? And we already had a teacher shortage approaching critical levels (due to years of underfunding and consequently uncompetitive salaries for teachers). What’s staffing going to look like?

    This school year is going to be hell in some dimension. We just get to choose which, and we must do so with highly incomplete information.

    Thanks for nothing, Mr. Trump.

  6. Here in Saxony (state in Germany) primary schools (grade 1 to 4) were opened pretty soon after the covid wave swept over. But with two main caveats:

    1. children were not allowed to go to school when any family member has covid symptoms (this was now reduced to just the child having covid symptoms)
    2. While there is no social distancing in class, all classes are separated from each other.
    In our school (3 classes per grade, grade 1 to 4) each class has a timeslot and entry point when and where students are allowed to enter school. Also there is a timeplan when each class can go to several separate spaces outside during recess. Students are limitied in which staircases can be used depending on the class they are in, and so on.

    I think this is a compromise, which only works if you have rather few covid cases in the general populace. But it really helps to ensure that these rather few cases won’t blow up in a super spreading event to the whole school if say there is an infected teacher. And yes, it works this way only in primary schools where a teacher stays with their class pretty much the whole time.

    Secondary schools (grade 5+) where teachers teach many different classes are not fully opened yet, with a lot of schoolwork done at home, and in school only with social distancing rules present afaik (I have no child at that age).

    To sum it up, I think this is, as you said, not only a binary question of when to open schools, but also how to open them, and if necessary when to close them. And yes, that needs discussions and planning, that this hasn’t started yet is very problematic.

    Does anyone happen to know who is in charge to decide when and how schools will open in the US? In Germany the different states each have a department of education that is responsible. Saxony was the first state to fully reopen primary schools, but we never had much covid going on here besides a few clusters here and there (thanks to the timely shutdown of pretty much everything).

  7. The one advantage you have is that you can look at what other countries earlier in the infection process have found. Quite a lot of the European countries have sent kids back to school, and must have some experience of how that actually affects infection rates in practice. I’m not sure if anyone has really got to the bottom of the degree that kids catch it or not and are infectious or not. The UK was going to in July for younger kids but decided infection rates were too high so It’s all nixed until September now IIUC. Quite a lot of primary schools have been open at reduced capacity because some children have been going to school the whole time so that parents can work.

    The least-problematic thing to do probably varies with overall infection rates. The US has not had such a high per-100000 rate as the UK, but it’s also done a laughable job at control in various places and started later so may well be in a worse place than us come the start of September. You said a month – do US schools open the new term in August?

    • Wookey: “The US has not had such a high per-100000 rate as the UK…”

      That used to be the case, but not for some time now. Per Worldometers:

      UK: 4,187 cases/million population
      US: 8,732/million

      The only countries of any size–meaning, more than 10 million inhabitants–that have higher per capita caseloads are Chile (15,070!!) and Peru (8,965). And at this point, we’re gaining on them both, I think.

    • Astringent

      Actually many, but not all, children in England returned to school on June 1st (Year 1,2, 6 and 10) , with some fairly strict social distancing measures in place to mitigate transmission. Other parts of the UK have kept schools shut or opened later. My partner is heavily involved in working to get school children back safely. There are clearly economic and social ramifications to these decisions – and also many epidemiological unknowns. There does seem to be some evidence that unlike other common respiratory diseases children aren’t actually super-spreaders , but that isn’t by any means the only issue it’s about mitigating risks to teachers, support staff, children, parents and the community.

  8. Susan Anderson

    One issue that has not been addressed is that poorer communities lack high quality computers and free or cheap broadband access. This has increased the education gap significantly this year.

    Please don’t think I’m proposing schools open, only that the remote teaching that is necessary not divide the haves from the have nots even more, as it is now doing.

    • Susan Anderson

      Also, the adults often don’t have the educational background themselves to help their kids, and in any case are often out on “essential” but low paying jobs themselves.

    • Wookey asked: “Do US schools open the new term in August?” Likewise Baadsheep: “Does anyone happen to know who is in charge to decide when and how schools will open in the US?”

      In the US, education is a responsibility shared among local, state and federal governments, but in general most of the hands-on administrative decisions are made locally, including school calendars. “Local” often means at the county level, but not always; in South Carolina, some counties have multiple boards divvying up the territory. For example, Richland County, which encompasses the state Capital, Columbia, has 3 school districts as you can see here:

      Teacher certification is at the state level, and some–many?–states set curriculum. (Texas and Kansas are famous examples–the first because of its sheer market power, the second because right-wing loonies there have more than once tried to highjack the state board to impose their ideology on the school system.) The federal government supports research, coordinates curriculum (as it tried to do with the Common Core initiative which unfortunately became seriously politicized), and sets broad policies.

      It’s not a neat system, but local control as the default is, I would say, a cherished tradition, and can foster parent involvement and buy-in. The downside is that as county finances go, so go local school finances, too, since the main funding source for schools is usually derived from property tax revenues. So some counties really struggle to support the school system in anything like an adequate fashion. It’s also the case that in many places, teachers have become funders of mundane classroom needs, supplying all sorts of instructional materials out of their own pockets. In some places, they can be recompensed in one way or another. And it’s also common for teachers to send home ‘classroom wish lists’ of things like tissues, hand sanitizer, spare pencils and paper and the like, to solicit parents to help out. I found this rather shocking; to my knowledge such things had not been very prevalent back in Ontario, when I was a kid.

      As to when schools actually open, in general schools in the South open in August–sometimes quite early in August, too–whereas in the northern tier it’s more common for schools to start up again in early September. (Not sure about practices in the West.) A lot of it has to do with agricultural tradition–kids used to be a big part of the agricultural labor force, so school calendars conformed to local needs in that regard.

      Susan said “One issue that has not been addressed is that poorer communities lack high quality computers and free or cheap broadband access.”

      Yes, that is a bete noire for my wife; she taught EBD (‘Emotionally or Behaviorally Disturbed’) students. Many did not have internet access at home. Immigrant communities often struggle with access as well. So when instruction moves online, they suffer yet another educational handicap. It’s a big deal, just as Susan says. There are libraries which they can use–but then, libraries have issues with Covid, too.

  9. Double posting, but this is pretty relevant here too. Florida mandates all K-12 campuses to reopen in August.