Across the United States, cities and states are struggling to devise plans for safely bringing children back to school this fall. It’s a daunting task: We know the coronavirus spreads especially fast in groups confined to indoor spaces. Children are at risk either way — if they go to school, they may get sick and new outbreaks may spike. If they don’t, they miss out on in-person classes, which play an essential role in supporting the mental health of children. The shift to online learning, while harmful for all kids, also exacerbates existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in education, and risks setting back an entire generation of children.
Many have pointed to European nations who have successfully reopened schools. What is often overlooked, however, is that these countries all have one thing in common: they had achieved low case incidence levels by the time they reopened their schools. And since opening, they have maintained focus on infection control and ongoing TTSI programs for disease control.
In The Path to Zero and Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces, a new guidance document for schools and school districts, Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Harvard Global Health Institute, together with collaborators from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, make the case that similarly, schools and school districts need to consider the size of the outbreak in their community when deciding on school reopening policies.
Some states—for instance, Maine, Montana, Alaska, and Hawaii—currently have sufficiently low case incidence levels across counties/districts to plan for full re-openings of the K-12 system, with adaptations to teaching and learning spaces for pandemic resilience. Other states—for instance, Arizona, California, Minnesota, Texas, and Florida—currently have such high case incidence in many counties/districts that those counties/districts should plan to begin the fall semester with online learning.
“Society has to forge a path forward with school openings based on the reality facing us,” says Joe Allen, Assistant Professor and Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We wanted to provide guidance not just on when it’s okay to open, but also evidence-based strategies for how to do it safely.”
“Our students should not have to learn in conditions of suffering; our educators should not have to teach in conditions of suffering. We owe it to our children to get them back to school safely,” says Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.
“We need a surge for education, just as we surged for health care. We redesigned hospital spaces and learned how to protect patients and essential workers. We invested in this. We’ve even done it for restaurants. We can do it for our schools.”
The new report bases its incidence level assessments on the color-coded COVID Risk Levels developed by leading public health and policy experts under the leadership of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center and the Harvard Global Health Institute.
“If you are in a red zone, there is simply no way to safely open schools now. Orange zones will struggle as well. If you open schools in these areas, the chances are that those will likely close quickly when teachers, staff, and possibly students start getting sick in large numbers. If leaders in these counties want to reopen schools in the fall, they must bring down the level of virus, starting now,” says Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “Yellow counties are in a slightly better position, but must still make hard choices. To prevent a resurgence of cases, these districts must close bars and indoor dining too and really consider how much non-essential retail they are willing to tolerate. Getting to green will make opening schools much safer.”
The new guidance document for schools explains how risk incidence levels, the creative adaptation of infection control guidelines for healthy buildings, and national investment in pandemic resilient schools can optimize operations, keep people safe, and restore our schools as trusted sites of learning in a densely populated world.
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