Conference Coverage

Schools can reopen safely with precautions, experts say


 

The absence of in-person school has harmed children in ways beyond loss of academic learning, according to Josh Sharfstein, MD, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore. In addition to learning, school is a place where many children receive breakfast and lunch every day, as well as support services and the benefits of being in a safe and secure environment, Dr. Sharfstein said in a press briefing sponsored by Johns Hopkins University.

However, although it is an important priority for children to return to school, “we are in the midst of a pandemic that poses real risk,” he said.

In the press briefing, several experts shared ideas and considerations for safely reopening K-12 schools in the fall of 2020.

Data from other countries where schools have reopened, notably Austria and Denmark, have been reassuring about the lack of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 among children in a school setting, said Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. However, other countries where schools have reopened successfully have reported low levels of viral transmission locally, and a responsible strategy for school reopening in the United States should follow a similar plan, she said. In areas where transmission and infection rates are increasing “it may not be safe to reopen,” but in areas where rates are declining or stable, schools could potentially reopen if they follow safety measures.

Dr. Nuzzo suggested that schools should prioritize students who will benefit most from in-person learning, such as younger children and those with special needs. Considerations include protocols for handwashing and sanitation, and maintaining physical distance by creative use of outdoor classrooms (weather permitting) or other spaces within school buildings. Transportation to and from school also will be an issue to address, she noted.

None of the strategies being considered will completely eliminate risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in school settings, so allowing parents and students to opt out and choose distance learning will be important as well, said Dr. Nuzzo. In addition, schools may need to consider alternative roles for teachers and staff who don’t feel comfortable being in contact with students and fellow staff members. “All of these things are going to be hard,” Dr. Nuzzo acknowledged. “Hard should not be a deterrent,” to reopening schools, but “we acknowledge the resources that schools will need in order to do this.”

At present, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have released some type of plan for reopening schools, said Megan Collins, MD, MPH, codirector the Johns Hopkins Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions.

Dr. Collins and colleagues have developed a school reopening tracker, which is “a national snapshot of current reopening plans that have been released,” she said. The tracker is being updated continuously as plans evolve. The eSchool+ K-12 School Reopening Tracker identifies 12 reopening categories that states could potentially address in the plans. These categories are divided into Operational and Ethics/Equity. The operational categories include:

  • Core academics
  • SARS-CoV-2 protection
  • Before and after school programs
  • School access and transportation
  • Student health services
  • Food and nutrition.

Ethics/equity categories include the following:

  • Parent choice
  • Teacher and staff choice
  • Children of poverty and systemic disadvantage
  • Children with special needs/English as second language/gifted and twice exceptional
  • Privacy
  • Engagement and transparency.

As of July 15, 2020, 16 states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin) had addressed all 12 categories in their reopening plans, Dr. Collins said.

School reopening plans must take equity issues into account, said Annette Anderson, PhD, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Specifically, developing learning plans for special education students and others at the most risk for learning loss will be essential. “The digital divide has become a digital canyon” in some areas, Dr. Anderson noted, and schools need to rethink eligibility and work to provide access to devices for online learning for all students.

In addition, schools need to convince parents that schools are safe. She recommended that schools consider inviting parents and families to visit buildings in advance of reopening so they can see the safety measures, such as space between desks, cleaning stations, and other protective strategies.

The message to pediatricians and health care professionals when counseling families about returning individual children to school is to consider the risk to the child and the family directly in the context of the local plans, Dr. Sharfstein said during a question and answer session. “One school system’s plan is one school system’s plan,” he said, and added that families who are concerned about the risk should have an online option. However, “if you see a thoughtful approach” to reopening, with safety steps taken and parents informed, with protocols such as keeping small groups of children together to reduce transmission, “it is a pretty good trade-off,” and that is why the American Academy of Pediatrics currently favors children returning to school, he said.

The briefing participants had no relevant financial conflicts to disclose.

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