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Schools Will Be Open But Safety Will Be Uneven

Unlike last year, kids will be in classrooms almost everywhere. Politics will interfere with safety measures to protect them against the delta variant, notably mask mandates.

An empty classroom.
The instructional model kept changing all last year in Umatilla, Ore. Following state guidance, the district started the school year completely online, then moved to limited in-person instruction before finally opening to all students in time for summer school.

“It would be tough to have a tougher year than last year,” says superintendent Heidi Sipe. “It was really challenging. We really had a tough 2020.”

As she prepares for the new school year, Sipe knows her challenges aren’t over. A survey of Umatilla parents over the summer showed that most wanted masks to be optional, although there was also a great deal of concern about the coronavirus. After the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called last week for all K-12 teachers, staff and students to wear masks, Sipe released a video making it clear that masks would remain optional for students in the district, which serves a Columbia River community about three hours’ drive east of Portland.

“We’re working now on setting the environment where schools are very supportive, where masks are okay and no masks are okay,” she says.

Sipe says she’s confident, a year and a half into the pandemic, that parents have the information they need to make “the best decisions” for their families. But there’s obviously no consensus among parents about what the best decisions might be.

“Our teachers will be dealing front line with parents who are adamantly opposed to students having to wear a mask and those parents whose children will only be in class where students are wearing masks,” says Mark Benigni, superintendent of schools in Meriden, Conn.

Schools are preparing to open at a time when caseloads are spiking again due to the delta variant, which has been more prevalent among children than earlier versions of the virus. “Numbers are rising in young people, not only in cases but sometimes severity of symptoms,” says Chip Slaven, interim director of the National School Boards Association.

There’s broad agreement that schools should be open for in-person instruction. But doing so safely requires taking precautions. Vaccines are still not available for children under the age of 12. “The science is clear: We know masks help mitigate COVID,” says Chrissie Juliano, executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, a forum for the largest municipal health departments.

At the same time, Juliano says she doesn’t envy school leaders who are having to navigate a variety of cross-pressures. As they prepare for the upcoming school year, superintendents, principals and teachers will be getting plenty of conflicting feedback from parents. Politics surrounding schools and disease will also vary by place. Nine states have barred districts from imposing mask mandates.

On Friday, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order directing the departments of health and education to block district mask mandates "to protect parents' freedom to choose whether their children wear masks." A day earlier, Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring cities and other government entities from issuing mask mandates.

“Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said. “They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses and engage in leisure activities.”

Health officials warn that bans on mask mandates could set back the cause of keeping schools open by increasing the likelihood of serious outbreaks.

“This is going to be a dynamic situation, because we’re battling a virus that’s changing,” says Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins University. “If we’re in a situation where there are a lot of kids getting sick, the school system’s going to have to react, particularly if a lot of adults are getting sick.”

Schools face another difficult and unpredictable year. In addition to health concerns, schools will have to get students back on track after many dropped out and others experienced a year’s worth of “summer slide.”

“Every individual school and school district needs to create policies in what is an uncertain and changing environment,” says Brian Castrucci, president of the de Beaumount Foundation, which supports public health efforts. “Ultimately, we have to make sure that schools are as safe as possible — for those students who are vaccinated and those who are not vaccinated.”

Consensus to Keep Schools Open

Last year, there was great uncertainty about the safety of in-person learning during the pandemic. Although the sudden shift to remote learning in the spring of 2020 was widely considered a bust, it didn’t make a whole lot of intuitive sense to have kids, who’d spent the summer avoiding their friends, packed back into buildings alongside hundreds of other people.

“Reasonable people argued both sides of it,” recalls Christopher Morphew, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “Whether you came down on the side that schools should open or they should stay closed, you recognized that it wasn’t a black-and-white issue.”

Morphew was among those arguing that schools should be open. Ultimately, that position proved to be prescient. Elementary and secondary schools were not major vectors. Unlike colds and seemingly every other respiratory disease, kids were not efficient spreaders of the coronavirus.

Conversely, there were clear downsides to keeping kids out of classrooms, in terms of learning, nutrition and mental health. Even if the pandemic were now well and truly over, schools would face hurdles in terms of assessing learning loss among students and getting stragglers quickly back up to grade level.

“It’s been a very traumatic experience for everyone,” says Slaven, of the school boards association. “They’ve got to repair the social, emotional and mental health of students and staff, as well as academic damage.”

Even teachers unions, which pushed back hard against opening in-person in many jurisdictions, want their members and students back in classrooms. “There is no doubt: Schools must be open, in person, five days a week, with the space and facilities to do so,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a speech at the end of the last school year. “We know that’s how kids learn best and that prolonged isolation is harmful.”

But the lack of spread in schools had a lot to do with the safety measures that were in place, which often included mask requirements. Now schools are facing a variant that is both more contagious and more likely to attack kids.

“Almost everyone agrees that schools should be almost 100 percent open,” Juliano says. “Now the question shifts to how do we best protect kids.”

What Precautions Make Sense

If there’s certainty about the importance of keeping schools open, there’s nothing like consensus about the need for precautions. Texas state Rep. Jeff Leach recently tweeted “Not just no. But hell no!” to the idea of requiring kids to wear masks in schools. Regina Huff, who chairs the Kentucky House Education Committee, shared a meme comparing federal health official Anthony Fauci to suicidal cult leader Jim Jones on social media, although she later took it down.

Masks won’t be required in schools in DeSoto County, Miss., just outside Memphis, even though the state Department of Health recommends them. The district has informed parents that water fountains will be removed and “constant cleaning and sanitizing will be done,” even though the coronavirus is an airborne disease that barely spreads, as initially believed, through surface contact.

“It doesn’t make sense to impose a whole bunch of precautions and not change if they’re not needed,” Sharfstein says. “If anything, we’ve learned that we don’t need every precaution all the time.”

Some of the basics remain the same: Frequent hand-washing, social distancing where possible and good ventilation. “We’ll look at utilizing outside spaces, whether tents for lunch waves or outdoor classroom spaces,” says Benigni, the Meriden superintendent. “We’re definitely spacing inside the building.”

Districts will vary in terms of their quarantine policies, often using tracing to determine which kids have been exposed as opposed to sending home entire classrooms. Slaven notes that there’s no single set of best practices that will be in place everywhere. Even within individual districts, the elementary school might be housed in a new building with good ventilation, while the high school might be crammed into a space with poor circulation and limited flexibility for spacing.

Unlike other diseases, such as cancer, taking precautions against the deadly coronavirus has become a political question. Sharfstein says that lowers his confidence that schools will be able to take the steps that are necessary to protect their populations.

“It’s absolutely important to open schools this fall, and there should be appropriate precautions in place,” he says. “Those will depend most of all on the amount of virus circulating in that community. If there are a lot of people sick, then more precautions will be needed in schools.”
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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