School & District Management

Schools Reopen and COVID-19 Cases Crop Up. Can K-12 Leaders Be Confident in Their Plans?

By Catherine Gewertz — August 13, 2020 10 min read
Students at Corinth High School, in Corinth, Miss., follow signs on the floor as they change classes on the first day of school, July 27. In the first two weeks, the district quarantined more than 130 students and staff after 10 students and two staff members tested positive for the virus.

Clarification: This story was updated to fully reflect the reasons the school board in Jefferson Parish, La., decided to delay reopening schools.

As the nation’s first wave of schools reopen, the viral photos and headlines tell an alarming story: High school hallways crammed with maskless teenagers. Schools or classrooms shuttered, and hundreds of people quarantined, when officials learn that students or staff have tested positive for coronavirus.

It’s a problem that looms large for thousands of schools. Most schools haven’t begun yet, but many are currently planning to provide at least some in-person instruction. Many that have already ventured into that territory are quickly finding COVID-19 is circulating inside.

Scientists don’t fully understand yet children’s roles in spreading COVID-19, so it’s hard to tell whether schools could become major coronavirus spreaders. The prospect is worrisome. But should it prompt schools to reconsider letting students return in person, when legions of parents are begging for it?

Education Week asked three medical experts, and district leaders in six states, that question. While some acknowledged concern, none—even those who opened schools only to discover people with the virus—said that in-person instruction, wisely implemented, should be jettisoned. All said some COVID-19 cases are to be expected as schools reopen. What’s crucial, they said, is to respond to local virus patterns and deploy a suite of safety measures to minimize its impact.

See Also: School Districts’ Reopening Plans: A Snapshot

“I’m shocked that anyone would be shocked to find COVID cases in schools,” said Whitney Robinson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s school of public health. “The only thing that would be shocking is if they didn’t have a plan for it.”

Some schools’ plans, though, give too little thought to safety, said Anita Cicero, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which advises Congress and other policymakers on COVID-19 policy. Most countries where schools reopened successfully had 1 or fewer cases per 100,000 people, she said.

By contrast, “many counties in the U.S. have 40, 60, 75 cases per 100,000 people,” and positive-test rates higher than the 5 percent recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, Cicero said. “It’s not responsible in those settings to bring all kids back for full-time instruction.”

A Terrible Balancing Act

Districts’ plans are shaped by powerful forces that can put students’ and teachers’ health at risk. Superintendents say they’re struggling mightily to balance the importance of face-to-face instruction—and parents’ demands for it—with protecting students and staff from the pandemic.

Lee Childress said he unintentionally became a “poster child” for coronavirus outbreaks in schools as he tried to do that balancing act. He’s the superintendent in Corinth, Miss., where positive cases cropped up in all three of his schools. In the first two weeks of school, 130 of the district’s 2,600 students were quarantined after 10 students and two staff members reported that they’d tested positive.

In the weeks before school began July 27, Childress pored over local health metrics, and saw that new cases were rising. But he believed that he had a good plan to manage it: His schools required all students to wear masks and get their temperatures taken daily. The students were “cohorted” into groups to minimize schoolwide contact, and they ate meals in their classrooms. Childress posted pictures of classroom arrangements, so parents could see that six feet of social distancing wasn’t universally possible.

He noted that many of those quarantined were exposed during athletic practices or tryouts. Some medical experts might question whether he was wise to allow full-time in-person instruction when cases nearby were on the rise. But Childress said he has no regrets.

“Eighty percent of my parents opted for all-in-person instruction,” Childress said. “My community wanted me to open. My role is to be transparent, provide the information, and let them make the choice.”

Carey Wright, the state superintendent of schools in Mississippi, said if she were a local superintendent, she would be anxious about offering face-to-face instruction. But she doesn’t have the authority—or believe it’s appropriate—to mandate whether each of her 146 districts should teach virtually or in person. “Our role is to be as supportive as we possibly can,” she said.

Many Unknowns

No one really knows yet how many open schools are already dealing with coronavirus cases, since there is no national database. But the anecdotes are piling up. Within nine days of opening on Aug. 3, nearly 1,200 students and staff had been quarantined and two high schools temporarily closed in Georgia’s Cherokee County Schools, outside Atlanta. The district did not require students to wear masks.

North Paulding High, in another Atlanta-area district, switched to remote instruction temporarily after nine cases were reported there, and social media photos showed few masks and no social distancing during passing periods. Dozens of cases have cropped up in schools in Indiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and other states.

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows a 90 percent rise in coronavirus cases among children between July 9 and Aug. 9. It’s not clear how much of that rise, if any, is attributable to school reopenings.

But in the coming weeks, many schools will likely have to grapple with children who’ve tested positive or been exposed. According to Education Week’s database of 500-plus districts’ reopening plans, which is not nationally representative, as of Aug. 12, half were planning at least some amount of face-to-face instruction.

Schools are courting trouble if they reopen buildings with high virus rates in their communities and weak safety plans, experts say. But even in places where virus rates are declining and schools require masks and social distancing, Robinson said, “some places will just be unlucky,” and will find that students or staff bring infections to school or pick them up once they arrive.

For James Gray, that happened before students arrived. He’s the superintendent of schools in Jefferson Parish, La. After teachers returned to their classrooms on Aug. 3, Gray learned of “a handful, fewer than 10” positive cases among teachers and custodians. They were sent home to quarantine, as were a number of other staff members who’d come into close contact with them, Gray said.

Students weren’t scheduled to return to the district’s 74 schools until Aug. 12, but the school board delayed that until Aug. 26, in part to provide more time to distribute protective equipment and allow teachers to learn the new online platform. Trying to manage his staff and the shifting virus “is like trying to hit a moving target,” he said. He still backs the district’s plan to let students return in person and believes his schools will have adequate safeguards in place.

Kesler Camese-Jones, the president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, and a COVID-19 survivor, isn’t so certain yet. Her union is working with the district to inspect classrooms and equipment and review safety procedures and will push back if it believes the schools lack adequate protections, she said.

‘It Makes Me Nervous’

The Buckeye Elementary school district, which runs seven K-8 schools outside Phoenix, opened in full remote-learning mode Aug. 5, said Kristi Wilson, its superintendent. But an executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey requires schools to allow children to come to school starting on Aug. 17 if parents need a place for them to go.

“It makes me very nervous,” Wilson said. “We could have every parent banging on our doors.”

In the Detroit area, where most schools won’t open until early September, Randy Liepa is advising schools to plan for “rolling closures”—he considers it likely that buildings with in-person instruction will have to close at some point, because students or staff test positive or because of virus patterns in their local communities. Liepa, who oversees support services for 33 districts and 100 charter schools in the area, is seeing more districts opt for all-remote instruction because they’re not confident they can keep students and staff safe, he said.

Parents are nervous, too, and not just because their children might contract COVID-19. Stacy Bateman said she decided to let her five children, who span kindergarten to 12th grades, return in-person to their schools in Lehi, Utah, because she believes their youth and their limited contacts—and her district’s mask and social-distancing requirements—are likely to keep them healthy.

“But I keep worrying about the teachers,” Bateman said. “What if my kids are carriers and they infect their teachers?”

In Tennessee’s Sumner County, Superintendent Del Phillips said he’s had a few positive cases in his 30,000-student district since it reopened its buildings Aug. 6. He’s “not remotely close” to backing out of in-person instruction, he said. Eighty-six percent of his families opted for it, and “we knew there would be some level of risk,” he said.

He thinks case numbers are low because of good safety measures and because the district is using a hybrid model that puts students in school buildings only two days a week. But the district has also benefited from being in a place where local infection rates have been declining, he said.

Phillips has run into some resistance from parents, though, in his attempts to keep students safe. Anyone who tests positive must stay home for two weeks, but parents resisted his request to keep their students home if they might have been exposed to infected people.

“Parents gave us pushback on that, and some doctors are providing return-to-school notes for kids who have come into close contact” with people who have COVID-19, Phillips said.

In one district in Indiana, fallout from coronavirus cases took a different form: Lack of substitutes shut down a school. When the Avon Community schools opened July 29, most students had opted for full-time in-person instruction, but the high school had to switch to remote-only after five coronavirus cases were discovered there, said Scott Wyndham, the district’s superintendent.

The school took safety precautions, such as requiring masks and switching from seven periods a day to four, to minimize contact during transitions. But so many staff members had to quarantine that the school couldn’t function, and too few substitute teachers were willing to fill in when they heard there’d been cases there, Wyndham said.

The district’s four K-8 buildings didn’t fare as badly. There were four cases there, he said, but not as many staff members were exposed, since the younger children could be grouped for less schoolwide exposure.

“There are no easy answers, no black and white decisions” in reopening schools, Wyndham said, but he doesn’t think his district erred in trying to provide face-to-face teaching. “It’s what’s best for students,” he said.

Complicating a Tough Situation

Each story of a school handling coronavirus cases this fall arises from a blend of unique circumstances and choices, so it’s hard to generalize about the lessons they offer, experts said. But using every strategy at their disposal, from switching instructional modes if local health data go downhill to instituting aggressive mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social-distancing strategies, will help schools minimize risk.

Unclear guidance still makes the job difficult. Recommendations from federal health officials have sometimes appeared contradictory, and few states, such as California, require that districts meet specific health metrics before they can bring students back into buildings. People are still arguing about whether more states should take such centralized approaches. But some think they offer crucial protection.

Even concrete guidance often comes too late. In the Buckeye district in Arizona, for instance, Wilson said the state health department offered key disease metrics to watch in the same week she opened her schools.

Rachel Orscheln, an associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Washington University’s School of Medicine, is helping St. Louis-area districts with their plans, and said many are uncertain which local metrics to monitor: The total number of cases? The percentages of positive tests? The “R0,” rate, or how many people are infected by a single infected person?

Some schools are operating on the fear that children will spread the virus, when science isn’t yet clear on how effectively they do, she said. Knowing how effectively children transmit the virus is a crucial—and missing—piece of the puzzle as schools make decisions about reopening.

A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2020 edition of Education Week as Schools Reopen and COVID-19 Cases Crop Up. Can K-12 Leaders Be Confident in Their Plans?

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