To reopen or not to reopen? That’s the question on the minds of parents and educators all over the country as schools wonder what the coronavirus pandemic effects will be in the fall. Philadelphia School District officials released a plan this week that would have most children attending in-person classes two days a week. Like districts all over the country, they’re charting their own course in the absence of federal guidance. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said last week, “Kids need to be back in school, and school leaders across the country need to be making plans to do just that.” Meanwhile, issues of safety are being balanced with a need for parents to get back to work and for students to resume more normal education, socialization, and development.
To tap into this debate, The Inquirer asked two Philadelphia nurses and activists as well as an educational policy analyst to weigh the pros and cons.
NO: There’s too many variables for schools to be truly safe spaces.
By Marion Leary and Jessica Fuller
Philadelphia-area schools, like those across the country, are grappling with how to safely reopen in the midst of a pandemic. The U.S. is worse off now than when schools closed in March, with record-breaking case counts reported daily. Though Philadelphia cases are tentatively stable, cases in Pennsylvania and surrounding counties are increasing. Safety measures such as masks and social distancing have become a political powder keg; months into this pandemic there are still personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, ICUs are full, and health-care providers are exhausted.
Acknowledging there are important reasons that in-person learning is vital to children’s well-being, it is our belief that reopening schools in the fall would be a mistake for the following reasons:
Masks: Enforcing mask-wearing will be extremely difficult. Let’s be honest, we can’t even get adults to do it. How will schools ensure that every student (and staff member) properly wears a mask all day? Who will supply these masks?
PPE: Nurses and physicians are again sounding the alarm to the shortage of PPE nationwide. With over 200,000 students and staff in the Philadelphia School District alone, how will reopening schools compound this? Who prioritizes distribution when supplies start dwindling?
Social distancing: Most schools have about 30–40 kids per classroom, and with six-feet distancing, schools can only accommodate about 25% to 30%.
Pods: By now you’ve probably heard about “pods” — groups of students and staff who remain together as a way to minimize contact. But how will schools enforce safety guidelines with children and their families outside of school?
Transportation: Most school buses can accommodate between 50 to 70 kids at capacity. With social distancing, this is reduced to about a dozen. How do the rest get to school?
Sanitization: Cleaning and sanitization of high touch surfaces in buses and classrooms require additional time, resources, and personnel.
Symptom screening: Entrance temperature and symptom screenings may have to be performed daily. Do schools have the personnel and financial resources to screen and track students and staff? Do they have appropriately equipped isolation rooms with HEPA filters? During pre-pandemic times there were not enough nurses in our schools. Will they have enough school nurses if students are symptomatic? And then there is flu season …
Contact tracing: Philadelphia has fewer than 200 contact tracers, with guidelines suggesting that it should be 4,000. How will the inevitable influx of exposures be tracked?
Infection spread and transmission: While younger children may be less susceptible to the virus, we have to consider the teenagers and adults who are present, as well as the families and communities these children go home to every night.
High-risk groups: According to data from U.S. News and World Report, one-third of teachers are at high risk for COVID-19. In some districts, of course, that percentage could be much higher. Who will teach when the teachers get sick? What about medically fragile and special education kids?
Indoor environment: Finally, let’s talk about the very real concern of spending extended time inside buildings: There is mounting evidence that COVID-19 is airborne.
As parents, nurses, and public health providers, we would love nothing more than to have our children back in brick-and-mortar school buildings in the fall. Unfortunately, there are still too many unanswered questions and too much risk. Instead of hoping for the best, we should be demanding our local, state, and federal leaders adequately fund, plan, and prepare for a better online learning experience for all our children.
Marion Leary is a nurse, public health practitioner, and activist. Jessica Fuller is a nurse leader and professor.
YES: Distance learning isn’t sufficient for students, teachers, or parents.
By Jonathan Butcher
Jason Corosanite learned an important lesson this spring: 25 students is too many for a Zoom call.
“When we first went to distance learning,” Corosanite, cofounder of the String Theory Schools public charter school network in Philadelphia, says, “we had all the kids logged on at once.” It didn’t work. As Corosanite explains, students would “turn off, hide in the background.”
School officials have the final word on reopening. “We think being in and in-person to the greatest extent that we can is super important,” Corosanite says.
Across the network’s four campuses, he and his team are now preparing for the fall. “Every day, every week we are getting different guidance from the state level, the local level, and the federal level,” Corosanite says. “Our goal is certainly to get back as soon as we can to classrooms of 25 kids.”
Despite media warnings about increasing numbers of positive COVID-19 tests, new survey results signal that parents want schools to move in that direction — and quickly.
A recent national poll found that 71% of the parents responding felt their children learned less while at home than they would have had schools remained open for in-person classes. Parents were more likely to be dissatisfied with their child’s “required assignments” if they reported communicating with their child’s school less than once per week this spring — and with 40% of respondents saying they did not have weekly meetings with their child’s teacher, this means many parents were left feeling their students were falling through the cracks.
The Trump administration is urging schools to reopen, but these decisions should be left to parents and educators as they evaluate local needs. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Thursday that the CDC guidelines for reopening are “guidance, it’s not requirements,” which again — and appropriately — means families and local educators should make the decisions.
What might these plans look like?
In Philadelphia, String Theory’s example is worth watching. In the 2012-13 school year, the Philadelphia School District tapped Corosanite’s team to turn around a failing district school, and the network has more than 5,000 students on its waiting list.
Corosanite says String Theory will start the semester with half the students attending classes in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other half attends online simultaneously. Officials will clean the schools on Wednesdays, and then the two halves will trade places for Thursdays and Fridays. The school already operates with a longer school day than traditional schools, which will help recoup lost time.
“If we have the capacity to do more, we will do that,” Corosanite says. He explains that this plan was developed after talking with parents and learning that other proposals, such as having groups of students attend for seven or eight days straight and then be off for that amount, would be too difficult for families.
Corosanite says, “The most important thing for us is to be as flexible and nimble as possible,” keeping in mind that “a regular, weekly in-person experience for learning is beneficial.”
Public agencies will not have all the answers for local schools, nor can constantly evolving guidance eliminate all the risks from operating a school during a pandemic. State and national guidelines give educators a place to start, but parents, educators, and local officials will best serve students by charting a course based on student needs.
Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy.