Opinion: How to make school reopening safer

Reopening Kansas schools this fall is a gamble. The COVID-19 new infections rate and death rate are still rising at this writing. Will returning to school-site learning be safe? Will it increase the spread of COVID-19?

The only thing we know for certain is that school is scheduled to begin across Kansas within the coming month. Answers are not coming from national, state or local education leaders. None of these entities, alone or in concert, has the power or ability to bring school safety and learning to our children until there is an effective, widely distributed vaccine. Thus, returning to full-time, on-site schooling is rolling the dice.

A recent review by science writer Laurie Garrett found that school risk reflects the larger coronavirus prevalence in a community. Therefore, Kansas counties with fewer than 10 recorded cases of COVID-19 automatically have a better chance for a safe school reopening than schools in urban and suburban counties with more than 1,000 confirmed cases.

Nevertheless, hot spots develop quickly, so there’s no real confidence that schools can reopen safely even in sparsely populated rural Kansas.

Regardless of a school’s location, there is concern over the level of danger to children and their teachers. Unless a school allows only for gatherings of 15 or fewer, CDC guidelines warn of increased spread through repeated contact across classrooms, food service areas, sports, other activities and school buses.

As for the children, COVID-19 infection seems relatively rare but, in those infected, it can be severe. Research studies show a gradient of infection downward with age — younger children are less likely to test positive and less likely to pass the virus to others — however, teenagers, if infected, may pass the virus to others more often while having no or less severe symptoms than adults. But even the most optimistic scientists aren’t saying that almost all students will avoid serious infections, and we don’t know if the rate of infection will grow due to the impact of student interactions over time.

The challenge for school employees is the sheer volume of traffic and tight quarters in many school environments that make social distancing a significant problem. Moreover, reports from both the Kaiser Health Foundation and the American Association of Retired Persons estimate that teachers mirror the general population of workers in that about 25% have a condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness or other health complications from COVID-19.

Despite concerns, on-campus learning appears to be the choice of most students and families. In the San Diego area, where COVID-19 continues to rage, a survey within one large school district found on-campus learning was the choice of 65% of parents with 30% opting to start the year with remote schooling.

The odds for a COVID-19 controlled school start aren’t favorable notwithstanding widespread public support for traditional school as the best overall learning environment.

Fortunately, it’s possible to hedge the odds by mitigating the school reopening risk, if all:

• Kansans wear masks and follow safety guidelines;

• Schools follow safety guidelines on school sites and at off-campus activities;

• Students who choose to learn remotely have the technology to do so and;

• Voters urged their federal legislators to include state-level safety funding in the proposed new stimulus bill.

Community commitment will go a long way toward increasing the chances of a safe school restart.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.


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