Back to school in unprecedented times.

An analysis of the arguments for reopening schools, and why they may not apply to US.


3 min read
Back to school in unprecedented times.

Florida has broken the single-day record on July 12th, with over 15,000 confirmed Coronavirus cases. In spite of this Florida state and many others are full-steam-ahead with their plans to reopen schools. Florida's governor Ron DeSantis has made the analogy "if you can do Walmart" then you can do schools. He has also argued that children do not seem to have been a vector in other countries where schools are open.

As the nation's cases continue to rise, people are puzzled and concerned with plans to reopen the nation's schools. Is the logic being used to suggest reopening schools sound or is it defunct?

Argument 1: There is little evidence in other countries that schools help to spread Coronavirus.

The issue with this argument is that it is easy to say there is "little evidence" that starting schools would cause a spike in cases, because there simply is not enough data. Many countries did not dare to reopen schools until cases were low enough. For example Japan, reopened schools only after cases were under 50 people per day.  The theory is: if overall cases are very uncommon, it is then unlikely that Coronavirus would spread within schools. If cases in the populace are common, say over 60,000 people per day the likelihood then of cases rising in schools is much higher.

Data is also scarce because schools have generally been closed at the same time as national lockdowns. This has left a very short window for researchers to properly look into the specific subject of 'spread in schools'. Moreover in places where schools have remained opened it has not been common practice to test asymptomatic children.

You may read arguments like this:

“The scientific evidence for the effects of closing schools is weak and disputed” Camilla Stoltenberg - director general of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health

But what should be understood is: with the lack of data there is not enough evidence that children spread Coronavirus in schools and there is also not enough evidence to suggest that they will not spread the disease within schools. We simply do not know.

The U.S. is unique because it will be one of the first countries with a very high spread of Coronavirus to attempt to reopen schools nationwide. It may prove to be the primary data source for research on the spread of Coronavirus within schools in the future.

Argument 2: Kids seem to not be affected in the same way as adults.

It is generally true that fatalities in children has been rare but that does not mean that they are immune. There has been unfortunate deaths of children under the age of 17 due to COVID19. If it was your child would you choose to risk it? In some countries parents have the final decision on the risk-reward decision of going back to school. In others, school is mandated by the federal government. People in the U.S. are fortunate to have homeschooling as a possible decision.

However unfortunately, 'Schools' is being used as a blanket term by politicians. It covers wide age ranges, particularly when it includes universities and other higher educational institutions. There has been little evidence that older kids are immune to COVID19. There is also evidence that suggests teachers are vulnerable and have even died due to classroom spread.

Older students seem to be particularly vulnerable to spreading the disease. In Israel, where schools are open, middle and high schools have been hit hard with over 13,000 students and staff being sent home sick. In one notable case at Gymnasia Rehavia, there has been over 170 students and staff who have tested positive.

Just because there is data to suggest that kids may generally be ok, it does not mean that the whole school ecosystem will generally be ok.

The U.S. administration is hoping to have schools reopen and to have students physically be on campus. This includes older students at university campuses. MIT and Harvard have filed a suit against ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), for attempting to prohibit foreign exchange students if their universities have only online-coursework.

Many nations have left the freedom to decided what is appropriate for universities to be decided by the universities' administrators. This has lead to hybrid classroom solutions, part-time, full-time, and completely online depending on the preventative measures that the schools can take. For example, in Japan a digital office provider has been widely used as a virtual research room. In the U.S. lectures over video conferencing apps, such as Zoom, have become common place during and post lockdown.

The U.S. is in a unique situation because of the policies attempting to force a wide range of ages back to school in the Fall. A blanket approach for a problem that should be dealt with by schools and their specific communities with Federal support. To the contrary there has been threats made that schools will be defunded if they do not comply with reopening in Fall.

A one size fits-all approach creates a uniquely risky scenario of continued infection and deaths. Schools reopening in Fall within a country with surging case counts, may become an unprecedented development so far in the global fight against Coronavirus.

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