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  • Writer's pictureRachel Chin

Reopening schools: It’s an impossible choice, but let’s look at the data

Send your children to school this fall, or opt for remote-only school from home – those are the two main choices facing many parents right now for the 2020-2021 school year.

For so many parents, it’s an impossible choice.

Data for how coronavirus affects children is still low across the globe, so the danger level for kids is a big question mark. Many parents (including me) are concerned that even if we do send kids back in-person, it’s inevitable that the school will have to shut down and shift to remote-only when COVID-19 cases arise.

But other parents (including me) are concerned that remote-only school will NOT go well, that children will most definitely learn less than they should and be less engaged than they would be at in-person school. The sudden shutdown in March is still fresh in our minds, and IT WAS NOT FUN for most of us. I realize some children thrived with remote-only school. Mine did not.

Still others (also me) are concerned about what remote-only school means for our day jobs. Constantly juggling our own workload with our kids’ school schedules is just about enough to send you over the edge. And I have a pretty flexible job that allows me to work from home. I cannot imagine having an essential job – how can you possibly juggle a strict work schedule with kids at home that need constant school guidance?

You can’t. It’s impossible.

But how can you justify sending your child into a possibly dangerous school situation where they may be exposed to a highly-contagious virus that (if contracted) could infect all of your family and cause long-term chronic health problems or even DEATH?

You can’t. It’s impossible.

Governments and schools across the globe are grappling with this issue just as much as parents. Handling of the pandemic and how it affects schools has been widely varied. Although some data exists to support both sides of the school argument (remote-only vs. in-person), the information is still so new and involves so many variables that it’s difficult to form a solid conclusion.

However, as a parent of three school-aged children, I felt compelled to seek out how others have done it.

When I started seriously searching for real data from reputable news or health organizations (not my Facebook feed), I found a wealth of information, but it took a lot of digging. UNESCO’s website has an interesting interactive map that shows a time lapse of school closures across the world and blew my mind with the stat that more than 1.5 BILLION students were impacted by school closures in April (when global school closures were at their peak). Washington State Department of Health recently worked up a great summary report that shows how 15 countries handled their returns to school. And there are numerous articles detailing the many different approaches and levels of success attained by countries so far. A few that seemed notable to me:

Germany (83M population; 203,325 cases; 9,094 deaths as of this writing, according to Johns Hopkins website) has benefited from the strong leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry. She successfully rallied the support of her country’s heads-of-state and its citizens, and the country has been widely recognized for its early efforts of contract tracing to keep the nation’s death toll relatively low. Germany closed schools in early March, and then started a phased reopening in May with spaced desks, 10 students per room, shorter days and some schools testing every four days (with a negative test allowing no mask). Over 2,000 sampled students in July showed just 12 with antibodies. They had some increase in transmission among students, but not among school staff. Pretty promising, right?

South Korea (51.6M population; 13,771 cases; 296 deaths as of this writing, according to Johns Hopkins website) implemented an extensive trace, test and treat program that has kept its death toll significantly lower than many countries. They started reopening schools in May with a limited amount of students, plastic dividers at desks and in lunchrooms, masks and temperature checks. Soon after opening, however, a number of schools had to close due to area spikes in COVID-19 cases, while others postponed reopening. Not super encouraging for the in-person model, but still not enough data to make a conclusion.

Israel (8.8M population; 52,003 cases; 415 deaths as of this writing, according to Johns Hopkins website) shut down hard in March, successfully containing the disease with less than 300 deaths. They opened all schools May 17, reassuring the citizens that things were back to normal, but two weeks later had to close dozens of schools due to outbreaks (as many as 130 cases in a single school). This confirms for me that we cannot go back to a normal school environment.

France (66.9M population; 214,023 cases; 30,180 deaths as of this writing, according to Johns Hopkins website) started in May to reopen schools on a voluntary basis only, in ‘green zones’ where transmission was limited and with reduced class size and face masks required in upper grades. In June, however, with only two weeks left in the semester, the country made in-person school for primary and middle school students mandatory, citing steadily falling levels of COVID-19 cases in the region and inequalities that surfaced with distance learning – namely, the majority of children who voluntarily returned to school were from wealthier families, while many poorer families continued to keep their children home. France’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer suggested the gap had to do with a lack of trust. This information makes me consider – is it possible we are unnecessarily succumbing to fear and mistrust when we choose to keep our kids home?

Sweden (10.2M population; 78,048 cases; 5,639 deaths as of this writing, according to Johns Hopkins website) never closed its schools for grades kindergarten through 9th (except for some individual schools that closed due to COVID-19 spikes). Choosing to implement little to no changes in its schools, this country could have provided some valuable statistics and guidance for the rest of the world, but it unfortunately did not track much of the data. Ugh. The Swedish Public Health Agency found that the antibodies in children/teenagers was relatively high compared with adults, though, suggesting there may have been significant spread in schools.

Other countries have tested out varying levels of the above restrictions, but data for all countries is still extremely limited for evaluating success rates.

All of this data tells me there is no one-solution-fits-all answer. It tells me our country, the United States (328.2M population; 3.8M cases; 140,855 deaths as of this writing, according to Johns Hopkins website) is going to have to be flexible in adjusting school plans as new data rolls in.

It tells me we cannot go back to a pre-COVID-19 school environment. And that we absolutely SHOULD continually review and modify our individual school plans, based on changes in the surrounding community.

It tells me that every time we adjust our school plans, we parents will still have to adjust our lives EVEN FURTHER to accommodate for our family needs.

It tells me we need to allow everyone to make the decision that is right for them right now, because there is no single “right” decision. Every choice (in some way) makes sense and is valid. Shoot, I changed my mind a dozen times while writing this article!

So we will do what we parents always do.

We’ll make the best possible decision we can for the situation we are in.

Impossible as it may be.

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