By the end of March 2020, COVID-19 had forced nearly all U.S. public schools to close. Now, one year later, it’s safe to reopen them.
That’s the conclusion reached from an analysis of over 130 studies on the issue from the U.S. and 190 countries. These studies include medical research and the practical experiences of educators who have opened and worked in schools over the past year.
Some schools are already open: about one in three school districts now offer fully in-person instruction.
But great differences exist across districts. Small districts (with three to five schools) are much more likely to be open than large ones (12 or more); 44 percent of small districts offer fully in-person instruction, compared with 23 percent of large districts.
Differences include a political divide on reopening. Districts in counties that voted for Joe Biden have three times the percentage of fully remote districts compared to counties that voted for Donald Trump.
There is wide variation across states, too. Six states have no fully remote districts – Connecticut, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. California has the highest proportion of school districts where students are learning only remotely: 59 percent offer no options for in-person or hybrid instruction.
The new report clearly argues that there’s no longer any medical or safety reason to continue school closures. It covers many topics, including risks for children and teachers, transmission issues, and the impact of openings on community spread. It provides answers not available a year ago when schools closed and offers a roadmap for how to resume in-person instruction safely.
There are three key findings.
First, we now know that closings impose major costs on students and society that must be balanced against public health benefits. For example, children now face greater personal health risks and mental health challenges. They also suffer severe learning loss – especially children of color – leading to lower future wage earnings. Parents also suffer severe hardships: more than 2 million mothers have left the workforce to care for their children.
Second, the vast majority of research shows that children make up a small share of COVID-19 cases, develop less severe illness, and have lower mortality rates. Attending school does not increase risk to children, especially if health procedures are followed.
In addition, evidence suggests that schools mirror the transmission rates of their communities. Schools themselves don’t appear to drive community transmission.
And while high school students are more likely to contract and spread infection, there is much less risk in grade school children.
Third, protective measures such as mask wearing, physical distancing, increasing hygiene, and improving ventilation lessen risks for students and school staff. COVID-19 vaccinations, symptomatic testing and isolating of potentially infected individuals, and asymptomatic COVID-19 screening tests offer additional preventive benefits.
Some children, faculty, and staff do face higher risks due to preexisting health conditions and other factors. They should have additional accommodations to protect them, including the option to teach or learn from home.
The COVID-19 public health crisis has led to a national education crisis. But if we follow the evidence, schools can reopen without endangering educators, families, students, or the community.