COVID-19 and Schools: Are Schools Safe Now?

As the United States went into lockdown last spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most schools—from kindergarten to college—closed, and remained closed at the start of 2021.

Two weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, all kindergarten to 12th grade (K–12) public schools and most universities across the U.S. canceled in-person classes. Many pivoted to online learning for the rest of the school year. 

Due to the surge in COVID-19 cases over the summer, only 17 percent of district schools reopened fully in the fall of 2020, 23 percent started the new school year (2020–2021) offering classes entirely online, and more than half of the schools applied a hybrid model—a combination of in-person and online classes.

Offering in-person or distance learning to students has been a heated debate throughout the pandemic, and many questions remain unanswered, such as:
-Is it safe for teachers and students to go back to schools?
When will schools reopen?
How does online learning affect children?

In this blog post, we work to answer these questions based on the latest information and recommendations.

Schools Across the United States

Throughout 2020, students have faced unprecedented academic, social, and emotional challenges related to remote learning, particularly students who live in vulnerable and low-income communities and whose access to an internet connection is limited. “Children’s ability to read, write, and do basic math has suffered, and the skills they need to thrive in the twenty-first-century economy have diminished,” noted Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF. “That’s why closing schools must be a measure of last resort after all other options have been considered.”

Starting his new administration, President Biden promised to reopen most K–8 schools in the first 100 days of his presidency and provide funds and resources to achieve this promise—including broad testing, contact tracing, transportation, and cleaning and ventilation systems. “We need ventilation systems in the schools… we need testing for people coming in and out of the classes. We need testing for teachers as well as students,” said President Biden in one of his press briefings, as he doubled down on many of the school safety measures recommended by health experts for school districts to adopt when considering whether to re-establish in-person learning.

While the process appears to be slow-going, efforts are being made to prioritize the vaccination of teachers. Kim Anderson, the executive director of the National Education Association (NEA), has stated that “Educators are no different [from other front-line workers], and educators need to be prioritized, not only so that we can get safely back to in-person learning as quickly as possible, but so we can see students and thus, their families, safe as well.”

President Biden’s goal to reopen most elementary and middle schools might be in jeopardy given the new and more contagious strains of COVID-19 reaching the United States, vaccination rollout delays, and an ongoing surge of new cases with more than 100,000 Americans infected daily during the first month of 2021.

Nevertheless, the controversial and ongoing question over when schools reopen has a silver lining—a report published by three Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists in January 2021 shows that the rapid spread of COVID-19 observed in living facilities and crowded workplaces hasn’t happened within schools. This contrasts earlier data which suggested that transmission increased in spring and summer 2020 congregate settings. To err on the side of caution, schools have been implementing several precautions, such as physical distancing, room ventilation, broad testing, contact tracing, and restriction of indoor sports and dining. The report also encourages the option of online schooling, particularly for those, students and teachers alike, who are at increased risk.

The report suggests that, as some school officials have reinstated in-person classes, there’s been little evidence that in-person learning gives rise to a wider spread of the virus, although public health officials and scientists can’t yet say for sure. For example, 11 school districts in North Carolina with more than 90,000 personnel and students opened fully for nine weeks. During this time, only 32 cases within the school were reported versus 773 community-acquired ones. This could be due to the prioritization of testing for adults (therefore underestimating the number of cases in children) and/or the possibility that children are less susceptible to severe infection than adults. A similar report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control released in December 2020 concluded that schools were not associated with accelerating community transmissions.

Schools Across Europe and Latin America

As with the U.S., schools across Europe and Latin America have navigated the pandemic juggling a mix of online, hybrid, and in-person education. 

In some U.K. countries, such as Wales and Scotland, schools remain closed, offering online education during the first month of 2021. For the most part, the only students attending in-person classes are the children of essential workers and vulnerable kids, including those with disabilities, those without access to a computer at home, or those without a quiet space to study. 

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the U.K., told the members of Parliament that he hopes English schools reopen around March 8 this year, but it will depend on how many priority groups the U.K. government has been able to vaccinate by that time. In England, as in Wales and Scotland, children of essential workers and vulnerable circumstances are attending schools.

In other European countries such as Portugal, France, and Spain, schools are now open with continuous testing. Whereas, schools in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands closed around mid-December and will remain closed until mid-February. Schools in the Caribbean and Central and South America also closed in late March 2020 toward  the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most schools kept their doors closed for an average of 174 days during that year—having four times less classroom hours than any other regions, according to Margarete Sachs-Israel, Latin American and Caribbean regional advisor for UNICEF. By the end of 2020, 87 percent of students in these countries hadn’t stepped into a classroom for more than eight months.

CDC Recommendations for Reopening Schools

When schools reopen, they must do so in the safest and most responsible way to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and avoid in-school transmissions.

The CDC has provided some suggestions for States, Tribes, Localities, Territories (STLT), and school districts to use as they decide whether or not to reopen their schools. Rather than acting as regulatory requirements, these suggestions serve as a guide to assist STLT officials.

The CDC suggests using two out of three core indicators, which include two measures of community burden and the school’s ability to implement the recommended mitigation strategies.

How to calculate the community burden

The CDC recommends using at least one of the two ways to measure a community burden: 

1. The number of new cases per 100,000 people within the last 14 days.
2. The percentage of positive RT-PCR tests during the last 14 days.

Key COVID-19 school mitigation strategies

All schools reopening should adhere to the following strategies: 

  • Masks: Ensure masks are used consistently and correctly.
  • Social distancing whenever possible: Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet. 
  • Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette: Teach and ensure all students and staff are handwashing with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. 
  • Cleaning and disinfecting: Clean and disinfect regularly—especially frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, sink handles, toilets, playground equipment, and drinking fountains.
  • Contact tracing: Perform contact tracing for all infected students, teachers, and staff in collaboration with the local health department.

COVID-19 in Children

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts studied how the coronavirus affected children compared to adults. They have found that, while there have been fewer cases of COVID-19 infection in children than adults, it is still possible for children and teenagers to get infected, and most importantly, they can spread the virus that causes COVID-19, even if they’re asymptomatic. 

At this time, COVID-19 in children seems to be much milder than in adults. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 2.9 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 as of February 2021, representing only 13% of all US cases. Most children who have been infected have experienced mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Additionally, the hospitalization rate has been much lower in children than in adults—only 0.1%–2.3% of kids with COVID-19 have been hospitalized.

Because the reopening of schools could allow for an increase in the number of cases in children, it is crucial that families continue to monitor the health status of younger family members. The most common COVID-19 symptoms in children are fever and cough. Other symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Loss of taste and/or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomachache
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle pain
  • Poor appetite—especially in babies younger than 12 months

Helping kids cope with back-to-school anxiety

Although there have been some downsides to online learning for both children and parents, one positive side is that kids have been spending more time than ever with their families. However, this also means that going back to school can cause fear and separation anxiety for some kids after many months of family togetherness. Experts at the Child Mind Institute share some tips to support the mental health of kids who struggle with back-to-school anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Validate their feelings

Let your kids know that they can and should express their feelings and do your best to help  them feel better afterward. “If they say they miss you, that’s okay,” suggests Dr. Busman, PsyD, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “I think you want to say, ‘I miss you too, and I’m so proud of you for going to school.’”

Set the tone

Children see, children do. If kids sense that their parents are anxious about schools reopening, they will feel anxious too. Try to remain calm even if this is something you are worried about and avoid asking leading questions such as, “Are you nervous about going back to school?” These types of questions may make children think there’s something wrong with returning to school.

Help them to think positively

It’s quite common for kids, especially younger ones, to worry about separation—particularly now that they’ve been attending school remotely for a while. One thing that can lead to more anxiety in children when separating from their parents is not knowing where their parents will be. Letting your child know what you’ll be doing during school hours can ease their thoughts. Talking about the things they like about school, such as seeing their friends and teachers, can also help.

Emphasize safety measures

It’s impossible to promise your kids that you or they won’t get sick, but you can reassure them that everyone is doing their best to keep things as healthy and safe as possible. Let them know that schools have been working for months on their reopening plans to keep all students and staff safe and avoid transmissions—that’s why there are rules they need to follow. Be their positive role models and teach them the appropriate way to wear a mask, social distance and practice hand hygiene.

More Resources for Schools Reopening

To learn more about public health official and CDC recommendations on reopening schools, dealing with COVID-19 in children, creating safe schools, and helping kids going back to school, visit:

Curative Inc. and its subsidiary, Curative Management Services LLC, engage with medical entities that provide vaccination services.

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