Safely Reopening Schools in America?

Safely Reopening Schools in America?

Nina Kini, Public Health Editor/Contributing Writer, Placentia CA

Schooling in America- The Race to Reopen

Grade school is one of the most commonly shared experiences of Americans of all ages, across the country. For most children, schooling- whether it be public, private, online, or at home – begins just after learning how to speak, and ends once they are young adults. The different experiences and lessons learned by each child in the education system plays a big role in shaping them as adults. Most high schools in the U.S. offer plenty of opportunities to get involved and to participate in the school community, including rigorous academic programs, interesting clubs, high energy sports, or even just the chance to socialize with friendly staff or peers. With such a wide variety of options, it is likely that all students are missing a little bit of something during the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic. Recently, many schools across the United States have made the decision to begin the school year either completely online, or with serious cautionary safety measures for in-person learning. It’s likely going to be months before a reliable vaccine is available for distribution across the population. Even then, there are concerns that the vaccine will have less than 100% efficacy. To add to that, there is already a significant population of people who plan on not getting vaccinated at all. Eventually, schools will reopen, but it’s obvious that we are going to have to rethink the way schooling works in order to ensure everyone’s safety. But before we do that, it’s imperative to learn how Coronavirus affects the school-going population. 

If young people are not an at-risk group, why do they still need to be cautious? 

A common misconception about COVID-19 is that it doesn’t affect or proliferate among young people, hence the hesitation and resistance to shutting down schools and transition to online learning. Although the CDC does cite a lower risk for serious complications of COVID-19 in children, they are still very capable of transmitting the disease to family, staff, and other community members in the vicinity. Let’s take this hypothetical example; School has just begun in the fall, and you’re a 15 year old student who’s not very meticulous about social distancing, or wearing a mask. As a result, you may quickly contract the coronavirus. Since you are young and healthy, you only have mild cold symptoms. However, your 65 year old grandmother lives at home with you, and has Heart Disease and Type 2 Diabetes (both risk factors for developing severe illness after contracting coronavirus). A few days later, she contracts the virus from you, and quickly ends up in the hospital. As the days go by, her condition worsens and she ends up on a ventilator. The percentage of COVID-19 patients who get off the ventilator is quite low, and since she’s still contagious, you and your family aren’t allowed to visit her in her hospital room. You’re genuinely unsure and terribly concerned whether she is going to make it to the end of the week. 

The ‘At-Risk’ Group?

Stepping back from this scenario, it’s easy to see how simple errors and lack of proper planning can escalate rapidly into a dire situation. Even if you don’t have a elderly grandparent living with you, there are millions of people over the age of 60 in the workforce right now (including many of the teachers/staff at school) who could experience severe and life threatening symptoms if they contracted the virus. That’s not to say that age is the only risk factor. Children with underlying health conditions such as obesity, heart abnormalities, diabetes, asthma, and any sort of weakened immune system disorder are all at a higher risk of developing life-threatening symptoms after contracting COVID-19. These people fall into the so-called ‘at-risk’ group. It is very likely that someone close to you has one of the conditions listed above. And just as described earlier in the hypothetical scenario, without proper precautions, anyone could spread the virus to persons in these at-risk groups. So now it’s clear that once school re-open, we must implement safety measures, or risk serious consequences for those we love.

Looking Outside the U.S. 

Before designing our own back-to-school plans, it is important to examine some of the tactics that other countries around the world have implemented, and how well they have worked for them. Depending on the infection rate and relative number of cases in each nation, everyone took a slightly different approach. Many countries, including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland and Greece, opted to send only their younger students to school to reduce the risk of transmission. Although it is true that younger students are less likely to transmit the disease than older ones, it is not impossible. Once middle school and high school students return, experts are recommending a more strict procedure. A wide range of options have been considered and tested in nations around the globe. In Greece, health specialists have attempted to reduce indirect spread by spraying surfaces of desks and tables with disinfectant mist at the beginning of each school day. In Thailand, primary school students have built in screen protectors around their desks to prevent droplet spread. The effectiveness of these measures is hard to compare, because many of the nations that began implementing strict social-distancing measures at their schools already had a lower infection rate than the U.S. In rural areas everywhere, the risk of transmission is far lower. And of course, the risk of transmitting the disease at school is reduced considerably if the country is already following strict social distancing measures in public, among the adult population (which hasn’t really happened in the U.S.). 


Insufficient Safety Measures in the U.S.

Back in the United States, many different scientific communities have put forward their guidelines on how to properly reopen schools. The CDC recommends that students should maintain a six-foot social distance, wash their hands frequently, and wear masks. Whether or not these ‘recommendations’ will actually be implemented stringently is unknown, especially with a large population of Americans resisting the measures in the first place. “The guidelines are already exceptionally weak,” said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. In the midst of political pressures, it is possible that the safety of schools reopening might be compromised. As research progresses, it may be useful to turn once again to places outside the US for guidance. 

Asian Approach

In most Asian countries, the concept of mandatory mask wearing during the flu season has already been around for years. Wearing a mask has been shown to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 by as much as 70%. It is one of the most simple and effective techniques to prevent the spread of disease. Despite this data, American states have struggled to implement mandatory mask rules in regular public places, and many are predicting it might be even more challenging to require the procedure in schools. If it works out though, this could be one of the most effective strategies to a safe re-opening. Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of a well-thought school returning plan  was South Korea. High school students were actually the first ones to come back to school after months of distance learning. Upon returning, students were required to get their temperatures checked while entering school, and several more times during the day. Hand sanitizing stations were frequent and students were encouraged to practice good hand hygiene throughout their school day. Classroom seating was rearranged to maintain maximum space between students, and some of the schools even adopted partitions in the cafeteria in order to prevent the spread. Students were carefully advised to refrain from chatting too much with friends during lunch and recess, and maintain their 6 feet of social distance at all times. Although the measures might seem a little stringent, they might be the best example of an effective post COVID-19 strategy available. Unfortunately, a few weeks after re-opening their schools in late May, the South Korean CDC reported a spike in cases in their community- originating from the school students. Within a matter of days, schools across the nation were quickly shut down. Although this data can be disheartening, it is important to remember that this was one of the most preliminary trials conducted in an effort to re-open schools. Scientists are hoping that with the new data about the spread of COVID-19, they will be able to better combat the virus and help schools across the nation reopen safely. 

Moving Forward?

It is clear that no one country’s procedures really succeeded with 100% effectiveness. If any progress is going to be made in the direction of a safe reopening, it is crucial that everyone works together. The best plan for a safe school returning might be a combination of strategies used by several different countries, as well as input from the leading disease specialists and public health officials in America. And once the measures are put in place, they must be diligently followed. As we have seen in the last few months, it is impossible for us to get past this pandemic unless everybody is on the same page. Each and every person must undertake an individual responsibility to maintain social distancing, wear a mask, and stay at home when necessary. As schools slowly begin to reopen, teamwork will be our most important asset. If, and only if, everyone plays their part- we might have a real chance at beating this. 


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