This fall, public school districts should prioritize full-time, in-person classes for grades K-5 and for students with special needs. That's the top-line recommendation of a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The report includes an updated review of the evidence from around the world and a set of recommendations on mitigation strategies for the coronavirus in school settings. It adds to a hefty reading list of back-to-school guidance that now includes comprehensive recommendations from the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers and every U.S. state except Kansas. There's a growing consensus on a few best practices across most of these reports, such as the importance of masking and social distancing.
What stands out from this particular report is its emphasis on collaboration with public health authorities and focus on not just recommendations for action now, but decision-making strategies for schools under conditions that will continue to change.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and member of the committee that created the report, told NPR that it comes at a time of crisis and repeated failures.
"We failed children ethically and in three important ways. First and foremost, that we have done such a terrible job containing this pandemic. Secondly, that we closed schools ... abruptly without any good plan about how to transition to distance learning and without adequate infrastructure for so many kids. And third, that the moment we closed schools, we didn't immediately start planning about how to reopen them."
Now, he says, with school months or weeks away, schools are "struggling to put together some kind of a coherent plan for how to bring kids back, if at all." In fact, with cases rising in most states, a growing number of districts from Los Angeles to Richmond, Va., are choosing to start the year virtually.
The new report makes nine recommendations. First, schools should consider that staying closed poses a serious risk to children, especially the most vulnerable children. When possible, districts should "prioritize" full-time, in-person classes for the youngest children in elementary school, and for special needs children. Christakis says that this is because these two groups generally struggle the most with online learning and need the most supervision.
When it comes to mitigating the risks of the coronavirus once schools are open, the report says, adult staff should wear surgical masks, and everyone should have access to hand-washing sinks, soap and water or hand sanitizer. People should practice physical distancing and limiting large gatherings. Cleaning and ventilation are important but not sufficient, the report says. Furthermore, Christakis notes, "deep cleaning, as is currently recommended, is expensive and may or may not really make a big difference." The report also includes a recommendation that states and the federal government provide funds to schools to safely reopen.
The report also goes into detail about processes for decision-making going forward and says districts should form coalitions to make decisions on opening, school operations and staying open. They should prioritize equity, understanding that communities of color are more affected by this virus, and that poor students and students of color are more likely to attend school in outdated and dilapidated buildings with overcrowded classrooms.
Coalitions, the report says, should work closely with local public health authorities in order to do contact tracing if someone at the school contracts the virus. This partnership should allow schools to keep tabs on the rate of infections in the broader community, which will determine whether they can stay open.
The true role of children and teenagers in spreading the coronavirus is not known. Christakis points out that "the explosions that we're seeing now all across this country are happening while schools are closed. We can't blame schools for what's happening in Florida or Arizona or Texas." Christakis says the next few months offer a crucial opportunity to finally do the research needed to help the public understand the risks that many districts are in the middle of taking right now.