Public health experts say schools are safe – but districts struggle to convince parents and teachers

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Short-term school closures across the US amid the Omicron surge have reignited debate about how to protect the nation’s students and teachers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Public health experts have found themselves squeezed between exhausted parents and teachers, as schools try to keep children learning in-person despite the recent swell in cases.

“This is such a highly charged emotional issue,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, who has helped advise Baltimore city public schools on how to return to in-person instruction.

“All I can say is – there exists tools that can make the school safer and not have this kind of spread you would expect to have outside of the school.”

Air filtration systems, ventilation, universal masking and most importantly vaccination reduce spread of Covid-19. Across the country, the overwhelming majority of schools are open and providing in-person instruction, as public health authorities have recommended. However, local school districts have also found themselves battling to convince both teachers and parents that school is a safe place.

“I have gotten a lot of pushback on all of these things,” Gronvall said. People have said, “‘Well, the kids don’t really wear their masks all the time,’ or the air purifiers – ‘How do we know they’re working?’ or the ventilation in the building.”

Multiple studies have shown schools that implement layered approaches to Covid-19 safety – such as ventilation, vaccination, cohort surveillance testing and masking – are largely safe and unlikely to drive coronavirus transmission.

Nevertheless, local teachers unions have received attention for demands to return to remote learning, a strategy public health experts said will not reduce the prevalence of Covid-19. Some parents have been reluctant to send children to school, while others do not support vaccine mandates, as education is yet again disrupted.

The pinch for public health experts comes as staff shortages have closed schools due to illness as the Omicron variant sweeps across the country. There are nearly 100,000 public schools in the US, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and more than 6,200 were disrupted the week of 10 January, according to data from school closure trackers at Burbio, the highest number since school started this fall.

“We have to look at the spectrum of illness we’re seeing in kids, and even adults now, and ask ourselves whether the risk to children’s education loss and accumulating mental health issues is not much more serious for families than from Covid-19,” said Dr David Rubin, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s (Chop) PolicyLab and a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Most experts believe it is too early to relegate the risks of Covid-19 to part of everyday life. Nevertheless, Rubin said, “The pandemic is really transitioning.”

When Chop issued in-person schools guidance to reflect that transition, including a call to end all testing of asymptomatic individuals, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers objected.

The guidelines feel “like a very ill-advised effort to downplay Covid cases and sweep our concerns regarding a massive surge under the rug,” the federation’s president, Jerry Jordan, said in a press release. Jordan declined a request for an interview and for comment. The union later called for a “pause” to in-person education to address safety concerns.

“What we’re trying to do is help people recalibrate that some of these interventions are going to be moving away,” said Rubin. “The scaffolding is going to begun coming down.” The hospital, he said, is trying to “change the public perception after a very traumatizing experience”.

“Vaccinations and boosters are really the intervention,” said Rubin. “It’s not clear to me closing schools will change the risks – it will just increase the negative consequences without a clear benefit to reducing transmission risk.”

The most prominent local school closures to result from union action took place in Chicago – the nation’s third-largest school district – after a dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and the district over safety protocols. The two sides eventually struck a deal, which included provision of KN95 masks for students and staff and the availability of weekly Covid testing.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has repeatedly emphasized schools should be back to in-person learning, and the majority of teachers support that, as long as they feel that adequate safety precautions are in place.

In Columbus, Ohio, more than 2,800 teachers, about two-thirds of the union, signed an open letter calling on the city to “immediately institute a two-week temporary remote learning pause to get us through the worst of the current COVID-19 Omicron surge”.

“From a health and safety perspective, which is my lens, we do know that sending students home for two weeks is not going to change the community rate of Covid,” said Dr Sara Bode, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics council on school health, the medical director of Nationwide children’s hospital’s school-based health and mobile clinics, and now the district medical consultant to Columbus city schools.

What’s more, she said students have become the “silent sufferers” of the pandemic, and now have higher rates of mental illness as a result of isolation and the loss of a safety net school provides. In the 2020-2021 school year, Columbus students had just 19 days of in-person school. Data have shown multi-layered safety approaches ensure that “school is not an independent driver of the rate” of infection, said Bode.

Meanwhile, some parents have advocated for remote education because of concerns about the Omicron variant.

“The decisions parents are making about schooling right now are very much a product of the kinds of challenges and constraints they’re facing in their lives,” said Jessica McCrory Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University who has interviewed hundreds of parents about their feelings on education amid the pandemic, and who has two young children herself. “The pandemic has not affected every family equally”.

In a paper under review for an academic journal, Calarco found white and higher income families were more likely to be “desperate” to have children return to in-person education, compared with families of color.

Although the correlation was not “one-to-one,” Calarco said white, higher income families were less likely to live near family, more likely to have two parents working full-time and more often cited demanding workloads. Parents of color and low-income parents were more likely to lose a job as a result of the pandemic so have a parent home, live in multi-generational households or have underlying health conditions that could increase risk of infection, Calarco said.

“There are widely varied opinions among parents about what steps schools should be taking at this point,” said Calarco. Notably, a large majority support mask mandates, about 70%, while only about one-third support a vaccine mandate for children.

That is reflected back in childhood vaccination data – just 18.8% of children aged five to 11 and 54.6% of children aged 12 to 17 are vaccinated. Part of the discrepancy in that rate is probably because older children became eligible for vaccination before younger children.

Concerns about kids contracting Covid-19 in school and mandatory quarantines mean some teachers have faced half empty classrooms after winter break. In just one example, school authorities said 40% of students were absent in Rochester, New York, when winter break ended.

In Newark, New Jersey, which temporarily returned to remote education after winter break, parents said emotions ranged from excitement to angst when children returned to the classroom earlier this month.

After interviewing hundreds of parents and conducting a national survey, Calarco said one theme rang throughout: a desire to return to normal. “Parents are most frustrated by the ambiguity,” Calarco said.