As the coronavirus surges again in most states, thousands of school districts must figure out the safest way to educate their students. Many began the year in remote-only mode, but now face mounting pressure from parents to open school buildings. Others are offering some level of in-person instruction, but must consider a quick pivot to distance learning if the virus is spreading quickly in their communities.
With these rapidly shifting dynamics, EdWeek asked Dr. Ashish K. Jha to offer some guidance for schools. In his previous role as director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and now, as dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, Jha has been a leading voice on the importance of using science and data to guide decisions about the pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In some cases, we see districts sticking with remote learning even when the two key metrics they watch most closely—the percent of positive tests and new cases per 100,000 residents—would suggest a relatively low risk of reopening for in-person instruction. Is there such a thing as being overly cautious right now? Should K-12 schools take a bolder step toward reopening?
There’s no doubt in my mind that schools need to be bolder than they’re being. There is a large mental health cost to children. And we know this is going to very substantially widen the achievement gap between wealthier/white students and poorer/students of color. The effect is going to be felt for a very long time. You always have to weigh those very large costs against the cost of going back to in-person education. Obviously, if going back to in-person education was going to lead to a lot of infections and deaths, you’d say OK, that’s a cost we can’t bear. But districts that are being too cautious are doing enormous harm to children and families in their communities.
In a post on Twitter last week, you said we’re likely overestimating the danger K-12 schools pose to the spread of COVID-19. What do you mean? Do schools—or policymakers—have reason to relax a bit about reopening schools?
They do. People are scared. That has led many school districts to be extremely cautious. In Newton, Mass., where I live, a relatively well-to-do suburb of Boston, the K-5 is open in person two half-days a week, and the middle and high schools are all remote. The science on this doesn’t justify this kind of behavior. I talk to teachers, and they might say, well, in the lunchroom, a student might walk within 6 feet [of another student]. It’s not like if you walk within 6 feet for five seconds you’ll catch the virus. That’s not how it works. That deep fear people have has meant, unfortunately, that we’re not having a science-based debate about schools.
It feels kind of counterintuitive to say schools can relax a bit about reopening for in-person learning just as COVID-19 is surging again. Shouldn’t they be watching and responding to their local metrics? Which ones should they watch most closely, and at what point should they pull back to remote-only instruction?
It’s a very good question. What I would say is that obviously you always have to pay attention to local context. It’s not like that doesn’t matter. I tend to look at new cases per 100,000 residents and percent of positive tests. What we know right now is that schools don’t appear to be a place where there is a lot of spread happening. If a state said look, we’ve pulled back everything—restaurants, bars, gyms, they’re all closed, and yet we’re still seeing a spread—then you have to say schools could be on the list to pull back on. But what’s happening is that there are other things that are far more high risk that we’re leaving open while being remote in schools, and that doesn’t make any sense. 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.
What are the precautionary steps schools should take, and which ones can they let go a bit?
Make sure everyone wears masks. There are some experts who think you can stop there. I’m more cautious. I think you also need to make sure you have schedules so you avoid really crowded hallways. Maybe stagger classes a little. The focus on cleaning surfaces is completely misplaced. It’s expensive and it does nothing. Get some Lysol wipes, make sure you have hand sanitizer around. I’m not saying don’t have people wash their hands. Use basic hygiene. But I’ve had districts say, “We can’t reopen because we can’t get touchless sanitizer dispensers.” This is insane. Taking days off to do deep cleaning? I don’t even know what “deep cleaning” is. Temperature taking is useless and I wouldn’t do it. It’s hygiene theater. It makes you feel good. Testing would be helpful. New York City is doing random testing, and I think it adds a nice level of assurance. If you have someone who gets sick, or someone who tests positive, then you have to do a lot of testing and contact tracing.
You’ve said that the federal government hasn’t provided adequate leadership for schools as they evaluate reopening. What are the most important few things the federal government could do right now to better support K-12 schools during COVID-19?
It could provide technical guidance on issues like ventilation, spacing, and how to avoid super crowded spaces in the schools. A lot of school districts have kind of figured this out on their own. It’s pathetic that every school district has to come up with its own pandemic response plan. It’s a place where the education department could have played a helpful role and didn’t, and the CDC didn’t play much of a role. At this point, a part of me says—I almost hate to say what the federal government should do because they’re not going to—but what would we want them to do if we had a competent federal government? They might offer some testing in schools. That would help us answer the question of how much spread is happening in schools. It would offer an important level of assurance to people who are going to school: teachers, staff, kids, parents. If we had enough testing in schools, it would allow us to use testing for keeping outbreaks under control.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as ‘Schools Need to Be Bolder’ About Reopening, Public Health Expert Says