It’s been four months since most of the nation’s schools abruptly shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, schools are considering reopening, while COVID-19 cases continue to rise. So what’s changed that supposedly makes a return to campus safe?
“Occasionally you have schools close because there's an outbreak of measles or flu or something like that, but not to this scale,” Dr. Elizabeth Hinde, Dean of the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said.
Districts are scrambling to figure out how to return to school this fall as COVID-19 continues to spread across the U.S.
Back in March, almost every school was forced to close, a mindset much different than today's.
So what has changed? We sat down with a global health affairs professor, an education expert, and an infectious disease doctor to look at the changes between now and four months ago.
Within the span of a week, states told their schools to shut down.
“When everything closed down in March, we were comforting a new disease, we were terrified at what it could do,” Dr. Sandy Johnson, director of the global health affairs program at the University of Denver, said.
Little was known about COVID-19.
“School closures are always a part of the mitigation strategy along with quarantine, stay at home orders, etcetera,” Dr. John Hammer, an infectious disease specialist at Rose Medical Center, said. “The difference between March and now is that we have a better sense of how the virus works. How it’s transmitted.”
There’s more to this decision than a better understanding of the virus.
“When we’re talking about whether or not schools should open, another factor is the loss in achievement and also there are equity issues that have really come to the fore” Dr. Hinde said.
Kids finished the school year from home -- some didn't have the proper tools or the support of a school, opening the door for inequity.
“We know that there are mental health issues,” Dr. Johnson said. “Our front line social workers that are looking for domestic violence and we know domestic violence has been going up. So there are many important roles in addition to education that come in those schools.” This also includes food and housing insecurity.
Another factor in consideration -- teacher health.
“These folks are balancing fear. Fear for their health, fear for the health of their families, with this real desire. They understand how important education is,” Dr. Johnson said.
“There's just no definitive answers that principals and superintendents and teachers can lean on,” Dr. Hinde said.
What was a state decision in the spring has now been put on the shoulders of school districts, as they weigh the pros and cons of returning to in-person learning.
“Every school board, every school district, has to make a very tough decision. It is a very delicate balancing act,” Dr. Hammer said.
“Local control is a strength in American schools, but it does make decision making very complex, because the superintendents of schools and principals are listening to all these different voices,” Dr. Hinde said.
From teacher health and safety, to inequities in learning and the mental health of children, school leaders have a lot of elements to look at when it comes to opening classroom doors.
“I think in the next couple weeks we’ll see decisions made,” Dr. Hinde said. “All of this, it’s a new world.”