Everyone wants to reopen K-12 schools, but the United States hasn’t agreed on how to do it safely. We know it can be done — reopening schools in Denmark and Finland didn’t worsen outbreaks in those countries — but certain conditions are prerequisite, and most of the U.S. isn’t there yet

Communities must contain the virus before students and faculty can safely return to schools; the infection rate should be low (below 0.9) and the positive test rate should also be low (below 3%). But even then, there will be risks. We’ll need to make decisions before we have as much information as we’d like, and those decisions will be highly contextual and regional. New York City is currently in a much different situation than Houston or Miami or Los Angeles; rural schools will have much different needs than urban or suburban schools; and even within the same community, individual families will weigh the benefits and risks differently. 

School reopening is the debate of the week, but it mostly revolves around the wrong question. Instead of asking “should schools open?,” the question should be “how can we create the best possible plan for reopening schools safely?” 

This week, we explore the known factors, the tradeoffs, and the path forward. As regions respond to the pandemic and conditions change, leaders will need to be agile enough to adapt to new information and adjust plans accordingly. 

What do we know? 

What don’t we know? 

  • Researchers are still studying the role children play in transmitting the virus to each other and to adults; we’ll need more diagnostic and serology testing — as well as contact tracing of confirmed cases — to better understand the specific risk of contagion in schools. 
  • Experts are still learning about MIS-C, including why some children have developed the syndrome and others have not. 
  • Johns Hopkins issued a call for national research to answer outstanding questions related to health risks for children with various underlying conditions and the risks among different school communities (for example, elementary school students vs. teenagers).
  • Teachers and parents worry that young children won’t be able to follow strict social distancing rules; in addition, experts have expressed concerns about the mental health toll on children who can’t have normal social interactions with their peers.
  • There are no standards or protocols for what schools should do if a single child tests positive for the coronavirus — partly because we still don’t know how many possible infections occur as a result of a single confirmed case. 

What are the benefits of reopening?

What are the risks of reopening?

What can we do about it? What are the opportunities?  

  • Experts say schools should require students and staff to wear masks, work in small “pods”, and maintain social distancing. Schools should also plan to quickly shift between remote and in-person classes — with a transparent process for making data-driven changes to reopening plans. 
  • Reopening plans should consider the school community’s most vulnerable, with virtual participation options for both teachers and students who have underlying conditions or quarantine orders. Schools can reduce risk for everyone by cutting large-group activities, increasing cleaning and disinfecting, and moving pods outdoors whenever space and weather allows. 
  • These measures will all cost money, and many schools are facing budget shortfalls due to the pandemic; districts will need funding to ensure schools have the necessary resources to reopen safely.  

Further reading