Since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year, too many of America’s 51 million public school students have lost out. While educators and school staff have been Herculean, remote learning is not a substitute for in-school instruction: 20 to 30% of students lack reliable Internet access in this country. As a result, too many elementary and middle school students are falling behind; absences are up and academic performance is down. But even worse than the impact on learning, without a school’s support and services, more children are going hungry, are socially isolated, and are suffering abuse or neglect at home. With each week out of school, the social and emotional costs increase, especially for low-income and minority kids.
The current COVID surge is clear cause for concern and it must be addressed before schools reopen for in-person instruction. But despite the latest devastating rise in cases, there is some good news when it comes to children and schools, particularly young children. The data from the United States and abroad suggest that because of strong mitigation measures schools are some of the safest places in a community, particularly with testing in place. Widespread, regular testing remains critical to school reopening, and combined with the right steps and federal support — even before the new vaccines are widely available — the nation’s nearly 80,000 elementary and middle schools could be open by March, getting students back to in-person learning for the Spring semester.
Testing and teacher vaccines
School reopening amidst a global health crisis is an incredibly complex issue. Together, we have spent months issuing plans, studying guidance, surveying stakeholders, lobbying Congress and other legislators, and supporting cities, suburbs and rural communities alike in their effort to reopen safely and equitably. Understandably, given the past year’s absence of federal leadership on this issue and pervasive mistrust of science in many U.S. communities, data alone is not enough to convince parents, educators or students that they’ll be safe in schools. For those who need a special accommodation to continue remote learning, they should have the option to do so.
But testing, expected to cost around $22.7 billion for the spring semester, will give us the option to reopen some primary public school buildings safely for those who can and want to be there. With the benefits of recent data and experience, we know we can make elementary and middle schools far safer, although high schools may take more time. By leveraging breakthroughs in test production, investing in protocols and infrastructure, and of course, prioritizing getting teachers vaccinated, we can minimize risks enough for everyone to trust being back in a classroom.
First, testing must become a way of life in schools: we need to test regularly and rapidly. Testing is an early warning system, particularly for a virus that transmits asymptomatically. Even after effective and safe vaccines become more widely available, regular testing is going to be needed to avoid outbreaks and protect children, and their families, who currently do not yet have a vaccine approved for use. Based on what we’re seeing right now a risk-based protocol could involve testing as frequently as twice a week for teachers and staff, and once a week for students.
Testing teachers has been one of the reasons Colorado has been able to open schools: 200,000 tests have been administered and found a 0.5% positivity rate among teachers, compared to a 4% rate state-wide for most of last fall. New York City has used a similar model, successfully closing and reopening schools based on test results.
To open the nation’s primary schools, the United States will need more than 200 million tests each month. Thanks to advances in technology and test production, more than that number of tests will be available starting March 1 though several regional and national laboratories will need to be ramped up to get test results reliably and regularly back to schools within 24 hours.
Second, we need to help make everyone feel safe, so students, teachers, and staff have the confidence and comfort to support learning. In New York, community positivity rates were more than ten times those in schools earlier this fall due in part to schools’ masking, periodic testing, class size and social distancing protocols, and upgrades to administrative support, cleaning supplies and sanitizer, and ventilation.
Worth the cost to get students on track
These types of safety protocols should be standard in every classroom in America, based on advice from public health experts.
Third, we need to get educators and everyone working in schools vaccinated as quickly as possible. America’s nearly 9 million teachers and school staff are linchpins in our communities, performing so many essential tasks — educator, childcare, mentoring, counseling and more — their true value defies categorization. States should see that teachers can be vaccinated with other essential workers by late January.
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The costs of such a plan are considerable, but the investment will be worth it. This plan will get students re-engaged, stemming further academic setbacks and starting the process of building back from the last year. It will also get teachers back in front of the classroom where they belong and want to be. And the plan will get parents — especially health care professionals and essential workers — back to work, or at least able to better focus on it. As a result, opening schools could add back, according to some estimates, at least $350 billion in lost revenue and growth.
But more than a student’s academic achievement and a working parent’s interruption-free Zoom meeting, reopening our public schools will be a reinvestment in and recommitment to America’s public education system and the next generation it prepares. There are too many things about this pandemic we cannot control or stop, let’s get our children back in the classroom where they belong and all of us need them to be.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reopen schools with COVID testing, teacher vaccines: Shah & Weingarten