Lancer Letter


#511: “Reopening Schools”

There is a national narrative currently that revolves around the topic of “reopening schools.” This past Friday, the Centers for Disease Control, came out with the first national guidelines on reopening schools.

It is important for readers in Northwest Pennsylvania to understand that most of this narrative does not apply to schools here. You may or may not be aware that there are some school districts in the country that have not had any students in their buildings for in-person learning since last March. This current narrative, and the recent CDC guidelines, are directed at those schools. It is interesting to note that in the state of Pennsylvania during the first week of February, 40% of school districts were 100% online, while 41% we’re in some type of hybrid (meaning a combination of in person and online learning), and only 19% were fully in-person.

There are a variety of reasons that some school districts have not had in person learning for nearly a year.  Many of those reasons relate to conditions of buildings and ventilation systems which are outdated and in poor condition. Some reasons relate to fears of the adults who would be working in the school or fears and concerns of the community or school leadership.

Here in our part of the state, most districts began the year in a hybrid instructional model. Pennsylvania, in the summer 2020, put together guidelines for schools to operate this year during the pandemic. The CDC guidelines are very similar Pennsylvania’s and don’t really offer anything new.

Part of the hesitation for schools to reopen in person this fall was fueled by speculation that schools would become sources of community spread. There is now enough evidence to know that is not the case. The CDC report states, “There is evidence to suggest that K-12 in- person school attendance is not a primary driver of community transmission. Although children can be infected with SARS-CoV-2, can get sick from COVID-19, and can spread the virus to others, evidence indicates that children are less susceptible than adults, and may be less infectious. In addition, children are less likely than adults to have severe illness or die and are more likely to be asymptomatic.”

Remember that the quote above is to help schools who have remained closed for nearly a year understand that it can be safe to open, especially elementary schools, but only if certain strategies are being followed. Earlier in the report it states, “To enable schools to open safely and remain open, it is important to adopt and consistently implement actions to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 both in schools and in the community. . . Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in- person instruction and remain open.”

The mitigation strategies highlighted are the things we have been doing from the start: wearing properly fitted masks and physical distancing of six feet.

It is the physical distancing aspect that is most challenging and has led GM and many other district to only have 1/2 the students in the building at one time. The CDC states, “Physical distancing (at least 6 feet) should be maximized to the greatest extent possible. To ensure physical distancing, schools should establish policies and implement structural interventions to promote physical distance of at least 6 feet between people. Cohorting or podding is recommended to minimize exposure across the school environment.”

Along with the physical distancing guideline, the report notes another area of challenge in an all day environment: “Communal spaces: Close communal use of shared spaces, such as dining halls, if possible; otherwise, stagger use and clean between use. Consider use of larger spaces such as dining halls for academic instruction, to maximize physical distancing.”

The CDC guidelines may be misinterpreted by some as an “all clear” for schools to reopen to all students, all days and go somewhat back to normal, but they say no such thing. They simply say that schools can be safe if all the mitigation strategies are strictly followed which means that most schools, because of space and personnel limitations, will be in a hybrid model.

The report does point out something we have all learned: “When communities implement and strictly adhere to mitigation strategies, the level of community transmission is slowed. This will in turn enable schools that are open for in-person learning to stay open and help schools that have not yet reopened to return to in-person instruction.”

We have seen this statement to be true – higher level of community transmission means more disruption to schools as evidenced by more students in quarantine and targeted closures. The community, then, can make a difference in the ability of schools to keep some level of in- person learning happening by always wearing a snug-fitting mask in public, keeping our distance from one another and avoiding crowded situations.

Find previous Lancer Letter articles here.