Urgent action by states, fed needed to clarify school reopening decisions
Schools around the country are shuttered again this fall as school systems continue to face chaotic conditions as result of the pandemic. As many students begin the school year remotely, families are eager for answers to the question of when schools will open for in-person instruction.
There are no easy answers to this question, of course. But transparent, evidence-based guidelines can go a long way toward ensuring that school reopening doesn’t become mired in local politics or the victim of indecision.
As part of our ongoing analysis of state reopening plans, we reviewed state guidelines for how school districts should approach the shift back to in-person instruction given evolving health conditions.
The results shocked us: 23 states plus the District of Columbia provide no clear public health criteria to guide reopening decisions. The majority of these cases simply defer to local districts to identify when conditions will allow for in-person instruction. Four states without public health criteria for reopening— Arkansas, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas—even require schools to offer in-person instruction regardless of public health conditions.
It may be that districts are, in that vacuum, turning to local health officials. But silence from states jeopardizes the safe and timely reopening of public schools and opens the door to local decisions shaped by politics, not public health.
Half of all states fail to provide clear guidance around when it is safe to reopen schools
Source: CRPE’s analysis of publicly available state guidance as of Sept. 3, 2020.
Even when states are providing guidance, it’s based on wildly different yardsticks and employs different thresholds for safe reopening. States tend to use measures like number of cases and “positivity rates,” or the percentage of tests that are positive. Groups like Harvard Global Health Initiative, the CDC, the World Health Organization, and others also use such measures. Sometimes state officials reference daily cases per 100,000. Other times they use an average number of cases over a two-week period.
These varying yardsticks across states are not a problem in themselves. What is a problem is that the thresholds they employ also vary, sometimes by a factor of five. And they are often not aligned with recommendations from research groups.
Let’s take a few examples:
The Harvard Global Health Institute suggests school systems prioritize in-person instruction for most students when daily cases fall under 10 per 100,000 people, subject to health and safety recommendations.
Washington recommends schools begin to reopen and offer some in-person instruction when counties have fewer than 75 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks, or about 5 daily cases per 100,000 people. This is a standard at least twice as stringent as Harvard’s, and basically guarantees schools will not reopen until the virus has virtually disappeared.
In contrast, Connecticut recommends some in-person instruction when daily new cases fall below under 25 per 100,000 people in a given county. This standard is five times looser than Washington’s! Most Connecticut counties currently meet Washington’s far more stringent standard, but despite this apparent success getting the pandemic under control, less than one-third of Connecticut schools plan to open for in-person instruction.
Meanwhile, Arizona recommends schools partly reopen when the two-week case rate is less than 100 cases per 100,000 people. These guidelines are equivalent to 7 daily cases per 100,000 people, more in line with Harvard’s recommendations. (Arizona also considers the decline in the number of cases and positivity rates).
Then there’s Iowa, which uses test positivity rates as its sole metric, requiring schools to reopen for in-person instruction unless the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate exceeds 15 percent. This standard is three times more lenient than the World Health Organization suggestion to use a 5 percent positivity rate as a benchmark.
Comparing apples to apples, it’s easy to question why state guidance should vary so dramatically and hard not to wonder what political forces are coming into play to influence those thresholds.
Vague and varying guidelines leave reopening vulnerable to shifting politics and may contribute to a crisis of confidence among teachers and parents about going back to school. Families of color, already facing a disproportionate burden from the pandemic, may be unwilling to gamble with reopening when it’s based on local whims.
The federal Education Department and Centers for Disease Control could work to develop clear recommendations for community caseloads and test positivity rates, based on the latest understanding of how the virus spreads among children and adults in close contact with children and informed by other countries’ experiences with returning to the classroom. But this sadly seems unlikely, meaning states must act now to clarify what’s next.
Doing so will require working with public health experts to provide clear guidelines to support school reopening. These can give political cover to local superintendents faced with advocates on both sides of the school reopening debate.
But overcoming the wildly varying thresholds evident in state responses will require coordination across states and public health experts. That type of action could help support greater trust among teachers and parents worried that politics will trump public health.
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