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Schools Are Retreating to Remote Learning as COVID-19 Surges. Do They Have To?

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UPDATED

By Stephen Sawchuk and Catherine Gewertz

As coronavirus rates surge across the country, hundreds of school districts are pulling back on in-person learning—even as a rising chorus of researchers insists that with proper safety protocols, in-person schooling does not appear to be a major driver of COVID-19 transmission.

In the last few weeks alone, several major school systems, including Boston, Detroit, and Indianapolis, retreated from in-person learning. Others, like Philadelphia and Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, have pushed back plans to do so. Many smaller districts are following suit, while the nation's largest district, New York City, which offers hybrid learning for about a quarter of its 1 million students, announced it would stop temporarily Nov. 19.

The unsettling conclusion from these two trends—newer research and the frightening uptick in coronavirus cases—is that many districts were probably overly cautious about in-person learning in the beginning of the school year, when COVID-19 rates were far lower. Now the recent wave of closures raises the specter that much of the rest of the school year could be lost. 

It is a vise-like position for school and district leaders to be in: to consider ways of keeping students in class, even as a disease that has already killed nearly 250,000 Americans picks up steam.

"My fear is we're heading to a reality where we can't open schools in 2020-21. There's time left this year, but you see it starting to happen—you see districts pulling back," said Benjamin P. Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University who studies infectious diseases. 

Health Experts: School Reopening Rules Have Been Too Conservative

More health experts are concluding that many states and districts have been too conservative about their rules for returning to in-person schooling—and much too lax about nearly everything else, creating a perfect storm that is making in-person learning impossible for hundreds of thousands of children.

Most U.S. states, the experts note, have put a higher priority on reopening local businesses, restaurants, and bars than K-12 schools. European countries, including France, Germany, and Ireland, have done the opposite and have prioritized keeping schools open, despite recently rising rates of community transmission. 

In part, medical experts say, that's because the local health department guidelines school districts typically use to decide how much face-to-face instruction they offer often define risk differently than state-mandated rules about public gatherings, which tend to be more permissive.

"We shouldn't be thinking of schools outside of everything else," Linas said. "If you're not going to do something to restrict mobility more generally to get COVID under control, then you're not actually going to do anything to reduce rates.

"Just closing schools will not control your COVID epidemic. It will disrupt the education of your kids, and all the other things closing schools does to families." 

Districts are making reflexive decisions to close their schools based on those local thresholds, Linas said. Instead, they should pause when they've tripped one of the thresholds, and consider whether mitigation or other strategies might make some in-person learning possible.

For example, districts could consider whether there's any evidence of transmission in individual school buildings or classrooms, whether students and staff are all adhering to mask wearing, whether windows and air exchanges in buildings are sufficient, and whether their contact-tracing efforts are effective. And, they could consider keeping certain classrooms or grades home, rather than shutting down the entire school, he said. 

What Should Threshold Be for Closing Schools? In New York City, It's 3 Percent

Nowhere is the debate over in-person learning louder than in the nation's largest school district. New York City has been slow to shutter bars and entertainment venues during this second surge. Last week, it rapidly approached a trigger point—a rate of positive COVID-19 tests at 3 percent or higher, on a 7-day sliding average—that would require it to resume full remote learning.

And on Nov. 18, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city finally crossed over the threshold and would close the next day. 

"We must fight back the second wave of COVID-19," he said.

The 3 percent measure emerged from negotiations between the city, medical experts, and the United Federation of Teacher this summer, and was included in the safety plan the city submitted to the state and governor's office. But that threshold is much more cautious than the 9 percent benchmark set by the state, and it is on the conservative side of the school guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city also routinely tests a sample of students and staff, and thus far has found very low test-positivity rates—far below 1 percent.

So far, the UFT has resisted calls to reassess this threshold. A UFT spokesman said late last week that the union could go to court if the city doesn't adhere to its plan. And de Blasio has defended the 3 percent figure, calling it part of a "social contract" made with parents. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo has hinted that he thinks it should be revised, and a rising tide of parents is also beginning to challenge it. 

Three parents started a petition last week, calling on the city to rethink the threshold, and it's been signed by more than 10,000 people. A hastily organized in-person protest over the weekend drew about 70 parents and their children to a public square just feet from City Hall.

While many parents believe the threshold was set in good faith, they argue that it should be updated to reflect the best knowledge about youth transmission and schools.

"Nobody knew anything about how the virus was transmitted at that time, whether kids were super spreaders," said Mia Eisner-Grynberg, one of the parents who organized the petition. "But as the data came in over the summer and then as other schools opened, it became clearer and clearer that school could be done safely." 

No Consensus on How High Virus Rates Can Go Before Schools Must Close

The current surge in coronavirus cases, particularly across a huge swath of the Midwest and in some urban centers, is shining a hard light on the need for good data and science to guide districts' decisions about shutting down or staying open. But there's no clear consensus on the health metrics that should signify shifting to remote teaching.

Health experts agree there is a threshold over which community spread is so rampant that schools cannot responsibly educate students in person. But even those who believe schools have been too timid in their reopenings hesitate to name exactly where they think that threshold lies on the two most common measures: the rates of new COVID-19 cases and test positivity. 

"I'm not saying schools should never close. They probably should at some point if things get really horrible. But the idea that schools should be the first casualty, before casinos, bars, and restaurants, in my mind defies logic," Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, said in a recent interview with EdWeek.

Experts at the PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which has put out useful guidance for school districts and advised local areas about school planning, warned in a recent blog post of "new, sobering data that remind us that there is an upper threshold to safe school operations."  

The organization noted that, in the Philadelphia area, as test-positivity rates approached 9 percent, "we are seeing [an] increasing burden of students and teachers with COVID-19 infections with linked transmission events in classrooms," and urged districts to consider a temporary transition to remote learning.

And Linas argues that beyond 200 new cases per 100,000 people—on the far upper end of the CDC guidelines for schools—is much too high for schools to teach in person.

"Over 200 is absolutely lunacy. I can't believe they put that on the page," he said of the CDC guidlines. 

Some European countries have test-positivity rates in the double digits, but continue to keep schools open, though the context for those decisions differs greatly from the United States'. Those countries typically have more restrictions on gatherings, curfews, and universal health care and other social supports that reduce community transmission, and their school systems are much more centralized.

Meanwhile, some U.S. states are headed in the opposite direction. In South Dakota, more than 1 in 5 COVID-19 tests is coming back positive, and case rates are outpacing 800 new infections per 100,000 people—far beyond any of the competing health metrics put out by the CDC, Johns Hopkins University, and the World Health Organization. 

Yet many of its districts appear to be keeping students in schools, and the state's leaders have yet to set mask-wearing requirements or put limits on gatherings.

School Leaders Rely on Own Judgments About In-Person Learning

There are some signs that states may begin taking a more active stance on trying to control community spread. California, Michigan, and New Mexico are among those that have introduced new restrictions. On Monday, California put more counties into its most restrictive tier, which prohibits schools from reopening without a hard-to-obtain county waiver.  

But in most places, districts don't have such mandates, or even clear thresholds that outline what schools should do when key health metrics shift. That leaves superintendents to make agonizing judgment calls. And it requires considerable courage for them to acknowledge that no matter how good social distancing and safety protocols are, reopening is never completely risk-free. 

Dave Barker, the superintendent of Fremont County School District #1, in Lander, Wyo., oversees a district that is still fully open for in-person instruction. Parents can opt to keep their children home for all-remote instruction, but 90 percent chose to send their kids onto the district's six campuses. 

Barker has watched as his county's test positivity rate soared to 12 percent, the highest-risk zone for keeping schools open, according to the CDC. But his district occupies only a small slice of that vast county. And Barker is finding dramatically lower rates in his schools than those in the surging parts of the county: Fewer than 1 percent of his 2,000-plus students and staff have active cases of the virus. 

With no specific county or state thresholds that would require him to close his buildings, Barker is relying on his own judgment about what it takes to keep his doors open, and on gut instinct. 

"I think the real issue is going to be if enough staff members test positive that we can't operate. Or if [COVID-19] really spikes. And I don't even know exactly what number that would be," he said. "If we see significant upticks in staff and students, we see that it's spreading. And we don't see that yet." 

In Rhode Island, a state where Gov. Gina Raimondo has pushed to keep schools open as much as possible, rising case rates are making things more complicated, even for school leaders who agree that schools are among the safest places for students to be. (Case rates in the state are now above 500 per 100,000 residents, and test-positivity rates are near 6 percent.) 

Jeremy Chiappetta is the CEO of a small charter school network, Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, in Rhode Island. It currently offers in-person learning for students in grades K-4, spread throughout four schools, while its high school is open for the most vulnerable secondary students. So far, he's been able to rule out any case of student-to-student transmission in schools; they've been traced instead to club basketball or other social settings where students have mixed. 

But the rising rates in the city still affect daily operations for the network. Last week, Blackstone had to close an elementary school because too many staffers were out for testing, quarantining, or had symptoms of the virus that need to be checked out. 

"The parents don't get that announcement until 7:30 or 8 at night, and it's jarring. You're pivoting on a dime each and every day. That's hard," Chiappetta said. "We have six-feet social distancing. We're cleaning like crazy. We have ventilation. It doesn't mean I can staff the building." 

This story has been updated to reflect news developments in New York City.

Photo: Closed due to Covid-19 signs hang outside Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md. —Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week

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