Millions of students across America have been stuck in distance learning for nearly a year. This situation, which has hampered learning and increased the gaping gaps, is in large part due to the fear of many teachers returning to class in person. In the past year we also learned how to keep schools open safely.
The educators' fear is based on reasonable concerns. Covid-19 is a serious illness. And schools are an indoor group with the potential to spread infections. However, it turns out that schools with some basic safety measures, including masks and adequate distancing, are not a high risk place for Covid-19 transmission. In fact, they appear to have far lower virus rates than their surrounding communities. Still, some union leaders are starting to lay the groundwork for schools that will remain closed in the 2021-22 school year.
I've lived in the Covid-19 storm and in schools for most of the past year. I am the father of three girls aged 11, 13 and 17 who all go to public school. I am also an infectious disease doctor and epidemiologist. I understand the teachers' fear – it is real and I have found it to be a front-line doctor myself. But I also know America needs to open its schools to personal learning, and there are safe and affordable ways to do it – right now.
And if educators and their unions do not accept mainstream science, they risk widening the educational gaps even further – and losing the support of their many long-time allies like me.
The agonizing choice between science and teachers didn't have to exist
Since March 2020, I've been a frontline pandemic health care provider, advisor to my hospital, and advisor to my religious community and a local community college – all with the goal of preventing the spread of Covid-19. To accomplish this goal, I also volunteered on the public health and safety advisory board at the Brookline, Massachusetts public schools where my family lives.
Unfortunately, the expertise of our panel – and that of national and international health groups – has often been rejected by the local educators' union in favor of their own judgments about best health practice and the safety of personal learning. In doing so, they misinterpreted the scientific guidelines and turned them into a series of litmus tests that keep our district in hybrid learning. These litmus tests are not based on science, they are anxiety based, and are an integral part of the school return swamp we are in.
A sticking point, for example, was the union's early and persistent insistence that desks are always at least three feet apart. This requirement mathematically determines whether there is enough space in the building for learners. Distance is absolutely critical to Covid-19 mitigation, but there is no magical threshold that makes six feet a "safe" distance and five feet a "dangerous" distance.
In environments like school, where everyone wears face covering, there really is no measurable difference in risk between three feet and six feet away. For this reason, there are no official guidelines from a relevant public health institution that require a distance of two meters at all times. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new school strategy, published on February 12, fails to address the main issues in the existing guidelines to help move us forward.
The union also cited the lack of asymptomatic tests for teachers as a major barrier to return to face-to-face learning. In order to bring the children back to school, we implemented such a routine test plan with high costs and logistical effort. We found that since testing began in January 2021, the positivity rate among teachers and staff has been around 0.15 percent – while cases in the greater Boston area rose sharply – and no cases of in-building transmission were detected in our contact tracing efforts.
Even so, the union continues to oppose a return to full face-to-face learning. In addition, the goal post seems to have shifted back to the universal vaccination of teachers.
All of this is frustrating, especially for me as an epidemiologist. In general, union leaders base their position on public health guidelines from bodies like the CDC. So far, the implementation of these recommendations by our district union – and many others across the country – has been opportunistic and their stance is inconsistent with current guidelines from the World Health Organization, the CDC, the Massachusetts Department of Health, or the Massachusetts Department of Education.
The tension was excruciating. Because not only do I support organized work after negotiating with the district's teachers' union in my city, but also because union representatives are some of the most popular teachers in our family.
I also want our teachers to be and feel safe at work. I can also empathize strongly with the fear and fear they are feeling. This fear is real. I also felt it when I came to the hospital for work last spring. That fear traumatized me and still makes me tearful when I remember those early, terrible days of the pandemic.
But as we near the one year anniversary of distance learning in America, I find myself losing sympathy for the educators' position and short-sighted vision well into the pandemic. We can safely open schools and have the evidence on hand to prove it.
A school yard is closed in front of a public school in Brooklyn, New York on November 19, 2020. Angela Weiss / AFP
We have the science to reopen safely – and we know the stakes
When Covid spread in the US last year, teachers were right to be concerned about schools. We knew almost nothing about the spread of the virus. Running schools under normal conditions could have resulted in more infections among teachers, students and people in the community.
However, since then we have collected a lot of data on how schools can be opened safely.
First, last spring, we observed the experiences of other countries such as Scotland, Singapore and France where schools reopened and masks and social distancing appeared to prevent large-scale transmission.
In the US, epidemiologists compared the time of school closure to changes in the incidence of Covid. Some studies have found that school closings may have reduced the spread of disease, but the results are complicated because we were also making other important public health changes at the same time. And overall, they couldn't find a strong bond.
It also revealed data and patterns on children's Covid-19 test results and their exposures. Game dates with friends turned out to be frequent exposure among the infected; Time in school no.
As comforting as the data was, it was all indirect. The gold standard for learning whether schools can open safely is pretty simple: open schools, measure Covid incidence, and see what happens. Many US school districts have now done this, and we have the dates.
First, researchers in North Carolina published results from 11 school districts and over 100,000 students and staff. Schools in these districts used mandatory masking and a two meter distance where feasible, but not a significant capital upgrade for HVAC systems or buildings. In the first quarter of this school year, they found that the rate of transmission of Covid in schools was dramatically lower (about 1/25) than the rate of transmission in the community. Of all Covid-19 infections seen in school, the state Department of Health tracers found 96 percent were acquired in the community and there were no documented cases of the virus being passed from child to adult in schools – zero.
Second, a similar study followed 17 schools in Wisconsin. As in North Carolina, these schools required masks indoors, three feet to get farther away if possible, and no major capital improvements. Between August 31 and November 29, with over 4,500 students and 650 employees, they found seven cases of Covid transmission to children and no cases of Covid transmission to educators in the buildings. In addition, these schools eliminated the transmission of Covid at the same time as the surrounding community saw a rapid surge in Covid-19 cases.
A third major preprint study analyzes data from two schools in Atlanta. This study is small but important, as schools routinely performed asymptomatic exams of students, teachers, and staff. In Atlanta, it was known that 72 percent of the limited number of broadcast events in a school were due to non-compliance with masking. Again, no cases were transferred from students to teachers.
While we are definitely learning that we can safely open schools and essentially prevent the transmission of Covid, unfortunately, data is surfacing on the real harm done to children by prolonged distance learning, including an increase in the use of pediatric emergency rooms for psychiatric illness, increasing fear – and symptoms of depression, losses in learning progress, and large racial differences in both the availability of personal instruction and educational achievement.
In addition, most private and church schools across America successfully opened for the school year – many had seen increases in enrollments as a result – while most public school districts were either partially or completely isolated. We cannot allow these repulsive inequalities to fester any longer.
We don't have to wait for universal vaccination – or longer – to reopen schools
I appreciate that going back to face-to-face learning carries some risk for educators. There is no immediately predictable scenario in which there is really no risk of Covid infection in school.
However, insisting on a zero risk scenario for school reopening is a long term distance learning commitment that most people disagree with. We owe it to the educators to do everything possible to minimize the risk.
Vaccines can lower this risk even further, but they don't just save the day. It will be some time before all teachers (currently only licensed to shoot in just over half the states) and even longer all students are vaccinated. And even if people are vaccinated, we don't yet know for sure that the vaccine will prevent transmission of the virus (which was a sticking point for educators and their unions, as it theoretically means they could pick up the infection without getting sick and pass it on to others, such as unvaccinated family members).
Still, all states must immediately put teachers at the top of the vaccine line. If we ask teachers to take a risk and return to the classrooms in the interests of education and our society, our society should treat them for the essential individuals that they are.
At the same time, teachers need to recognize that full vaccination is not a requirement for safe schools, as some education unions have called for. We didn't have a vaccine in North Carolina or Wisconsin when they safely opened schools in August 2020.
Nor should we allow other requirements, such as universal asymptomatic testing or major capital improvements to buildings, to hinder the return to personal learning. Yes, we should work on doing more screening in schools and improving air exchange, but we can do this in parallel with the reopening. We now know from good data that we can effectively stop Covid-19 at the school doors and get American education going again without these things. All we need to safely reopen schools are mask mandates, a reasonable distance of at least a meter, smaller and affordable upgrades to existing HVAC systems and teachers.
Many educators and their representatives have suggested that we wait and see what kind of school year this year will take and examine the prospects for public schools to reopen in the summer. But for millions of Americans, "the next few months" are a crisis of loss of income, unstable housing, and mental disorders that can't wait until the next year.
It is also true that many people of color, whose communities are hardest hit by Covid-19, are concerned about the safety of returning to school, and many urban Black and Latinx families have chosen to stay away even then to learn if possible There is a personal school. To get families back to school we must earn trust. The best way to do this is to open up our school buildings and have an empirical track record of safety while families still have the opportunity to study remotely.
If we hope that our schools will be open all day in the fall of 2021 and that all families will feel more comfortable in the building, our best chance of success is that we start ramping up now.
A realistic plan for schools reopening is to get the youngest learners back into full-time learning right away, following strict guidelines for indoor masking. A minimum distance of three feet must be maintained to maximize the distance as much as possible. As an extra precaution, districts can certainly conduct air exchange surveys in classrooms and employ simple and inexpensive mitigation strategies for suboptimal conditions, such as: B. upgrading HVAC filters, opening windows, and using portable HEPA filters in problem rooms.
Throughout the remainder of February and March, successive waves of older learners can return to school with the same guidelines in a step-by-step process that allows teachers and administrators to adapt to the growing number of students in their buildings.
With this approach, we could let every public school child study safely again by April. without optimal screening, before widespread vaccination, and without community transmission benchmarks that reflexively trigger school closings.
So we are in our national distance learning project for almost a year. It is clear we did what it took when Covid struck. But it is also very clear that our solution – distance learning – is failing our children and our families.
I love my kids' teachers and believe in my core that they want the best for my girls, but I'm losing patience. It is time to open our schools to personal learning – now. We should work to get universal teacher asymptomatic tests as well as universal vaccinations done quickly, but we can't wait for these things to be in place before we move. And science shows that we don't need that. At stake is the 2021-22 school year and arguably the future of American public education.
Benjamin P. Linas is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and an Infectious Disease Physician at Boston University School of Medicine. Find him on Twitter @ BenjaminLinas.