Since March we have learned a great deal about COVID-19 that is pertinent to the question of school reopening. We learned children are less impacted than adults by the virus. We learned a lot of children and adults who test positive are asymptomatic. In a review done by Stanford Medical Professor Jon Ioannidis, he indicated children under 14 are much less likely to suffer life threatening complications of COVID-19 than with seasonal flu or pneumonia
Over the last month, The World Health Organization (WHO) indicated the transmission of the virus off countertops and other surfaces is uncommon. Last week, they also noted that in contact tracing efforts across the globe, secondary transmission from asymptomatic individuals was rarely found. Overall, what we have learned over the last few months gives us increased confidence in moving forward to reopen schools.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) safety guidelines for schools have been published and will be used across the country to guide school openings. Probably the most important preventive steps for COVID-19 will be the need for children and adults to stay home when sick and avoid large indoor gatherings that do not practice physical distancing. Preparing to reopen schools will include the redesign of logistics to meet guidelines of physical distancing, masks and classroom changes.
Patience and common sense will be required. It is hard enough to enforce all the rules on adult healthcare workers. Compliance for elementary school students on wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding physical contact or physical activities is going to be a huge challenge. Teachers will need the patience of Job.
It is important we remember why children need to be back in school this Fall. Our goal of excellence in education creates opportunity for students and families. Schools are also a place of community and friendship for children, and for many, a place where basic physical, social and emotional needs are met.
The importance of in school learning cannot be overstated. There is really no substitute for individual face-to-face learning in a caring relationship between teacher and student. However, physical distancing guidelines will likely require schools this fall to develop a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning. Plans ranging from a total in school model with physical distancing to a hybrid model at school and home to 100 percent virtual experience will be developed for the coming school year.
No doubt 2020-21 will be a time of challenge in our schools. Challenges include inadequacies in technology availability for disadvantaged children and paying for the cost burden of safety guidelines. Providing excellence in remote learning and maintaining the health of teachers at greatest risk for COVID-19 will be key challenges. This year, the focus on teaching excellence will be accompanied by an increased focus and premium on health and safety.
None of us know what will happen next in the COVID-19 pandemic. There is plenty of historical context and scientific hypothesis for the argument that the summer will greatly slow transmission of the virus going forward. The same could be said for the possibility that we could have a significant second wave rather than just minor recurrences in the fall. If we knew what was next, it would certainly make decision-making easier.
This means school leaders will need to plan for different contingencies, and having made those plans, they will need to be flexible to respond to changes in the environment either way. If hospitals begin to be overwhelmed, physical distancing and mask protocols should be strengthened. On the other hand, loosening safety guidelines and increasing in-school learning would be appropriate if the transmission of the virus continues to decrease. We should be ready for either.
Schools must be ready with a reasonable response when someone in the school family becomes ill with the COVID-19 virus. Considering the negative consequences of the original lockdown, the response can’t be a return to lockdown for every case.
Whole community lockdowns will be reserved for true instances of overwhelmed health systems threatening the maintenance of community health. Scenarios and planned response should be considered before school starts because the likelihood of a COVID-19 case in any of our schools this Fall is high. Facing the concern and preparing ahead of time will reduce anxiety.
Restarting school is an important next step in our community. It is important for children and parents. It is important to businesses and employees. It is important this year and important a decade from now.
It would be easy for leaders to close their eyes to the challenges and dismiss opportunities. For the rest of us, it would be easy to be a critic. However, what we should all be doing is praying for our school leaders to succeed. This is a time when courage, humility, flexibility, and common sense must guide decision making.
We can’t ignore the health implications of COVID-19, but we can’t indefinitely shut down our communities either. It is time to open school for our children and get back to our jobs. Independence Day and Memorial Day remind us of our history of working together during crisis. We will learn as we go along; remain flexible as circumstances unfold; and remain respectful of others. As we do these things, we can change our anxiety and fear to hope and confidence.
Dr. Phillip Rozeman is a practicing Cardiologist. He is cofounder of the Alliance for Education, Education’s Next Horizon, and SBBA for Higher Education. He is past board chair of the Greater Shreveport Chamber and Blueprint Louisiana