As COVID cases in schools rise, school boards once again face an agonizing choice.
Should school return to distance learning — or continue in-person classes, despite the potential risk to students and faculty?
Most school boards confront an all-or-nothing choice, with policies that affect elementary schools and high schools equally.
Payson schools returned to near-normal, in-person learning this week, after a cluster of six cases from a single family shut down Julia Randall Elementary School for two weeks and prompted the quarantine of 300 faculty and students.
In response to an email question, Payson Unified School District Superintendent Linda Gibson said, “We are on a regular schedule and have a few students out as well as a few staff members. Any individual who was quarantined and is on campus has been cleared to return by the county. We are communicating with them on a daily basis. No changes planned at this moment for next week. As a collective group, we are all concerned and will continue to work on a daily basis to address our mitigation plan to attempt to continue in-person instruction at all sites.”
The district faces both a rise in cases in the community and a growing body of research documenting the cost of distance learning, especially for the most vulnerable students.
Community in the ‘red zone’
Clearly, the virus continues to spread more widely in the community — turning the once comforting green benchmarks for minimal spread into the red benchmarks indicating substantial spread of the virus in the community.
As of Tuesday, for the week of Nov. 8 (the most recent data from the state), Gila County had 528 cases per 100,000. The state’s benchmarks originally suggested the county should have fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 for the week to make it safe to offer in-person classes, and fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 to make it safe to offer hybrid classes. This entails a mix of in-person and distance learning classes that minimize the number of different students and faculty that mix daily.
For the same week, Gila County had 11.5% positive tests — again in the red zone for “substantial spread.” So according to the original benchmark guidelines, two of the three measures would suggest districts in the county should offer only distance learning.
The third benchmark — the percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations — crossed over into the yellow zone, suggesting hybrid classes. The percentage of positive tests went from 5.5% for the week of Nov. 1 to 4.6% for the week of Nov. 8.
So the original state benchmark advisory guidelines would have suggested the Payson school board shift to distance learning now.
However, the guidelines have changed.
For one thing, the state now tells districts the zip-code-based benchmark colors — without providing the actual numbers. The state website doesn’t report the zip code benchmark data to the public, leaving parents in the dark. Moreover, the two-week lag in the published numbers leaves school boards groping for a solution but responsible for the decision.
The state’s advisory guidelines now suggest districts need meet only one of the three benchmarks. So according to the county benchmark data, school districts are advised to offer hybrid instruction — even if two of the three benchmarks stray into the red zone.
Payson’s essentially offering full, in-person classes as though the county remained safely in the green zone. About 10% or 15% of parents opted to stick with distance learning, but for students attending in-person classes, the schedule remains as nearly normal as possible.
What the research shows
Nationally and internationally, a growing number of epidemiologists and educators say that schools seem unlikely to become hot spots – especially elementary schools. Children under 10 appear far less likely to spread the virus to one another or to adults, for reasons that remain unclear. Unfortunately – most of the data continues to lump everyone under 18 into a single category – including the results on the state department of health services website.
Germany, France, Ireland, Sweden and a host of other and European, Asian countries have kept schools open, even when imposing restrictions on large gatherings, restaurants, bars, night spots, gyms and other potentially high risk businesses. Many US states have followed suit this fall. None of have seen significant spread of the virus in elementary schools – either among students or to teachers and family members.
Attempts to reopen high schools to regular, in-person classes have produced mixed results. Israel saw major clusters of cases connected to high schools after it relaxed mask-wearing and social distancing rules. Even there, adjacent elementary schools reported only a handful of cases.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control found that children accounted for fewer than 5% of cases in 27 European countries and that school closures were “unlikely to provide significant additional protection of children’s health.”
Medical experts now say that elementary schools can be opened safely, especially with small classes, widespread use of masks and limits on things like recess, lunch hour and other activities that allow students from different classes to have close contact. They suggest the ventilation of classrooms is also important, leaving windows open to allow air circulation as much as possible. Random or quick access to rapid-response tests can also limit spread.
High schools and middle schools have caused more clusters of cases and sometimes spread to teachers and community members. Some countries have avoided significant spread by creating what amounts to homeroom pods, which keep a group of students together for all the core classes. Some have mingled distance learning with in-person classes, so students spend half as much time on campus. Many have curtailed large gatherings, scheduled classes to avoid releasing all the students into the hall at once, or modified sports and special event routines.
Sweden left schools open throughout the pandemic for students younger than 16. However, Sweden had much smaller class sizes than the US and practiced social distancing in schools, especially during lunch hour, passing periods and other group activities. Leaving elementary schools open had little impact on teachers or students. However, teachers at the high school level had twice the infection rate as elementary school teachers.
However, most of those experiments have taken place in places with far less community spread than now exist in Arizona.
The Arizona Education Association has expressed alarm about the effort to stick to traditional schedules and in-person learning in the face of the ongoing surge in cases, which epidemiologists predict will continue to escalate without fresh restrictions and shutdown orders between now and the arrival of a vaccine in the spring.
The AEA called for a statewide plan. “The (current) guidelines are not sufficient. They have created confusion and divisions inside our communities. Too many Arizonans feel this pandemic is a hoax. They are not taking seriously your recommendations to ‘mask up’ to stop the spread. Parents, students, and educators need you to state in the strongest and clearest terms a plan which mandates the safety and reverses the spread of the virus,” wrote Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association.
The AEA recommended mask mandates, additional funding for protective measures, better access to testing and the return to distance learning for any district in a zip code with a weekly rate of more than 100 per 100,000 new cases for two consecutive weeks.
“Educators and students cannot wait any longer, they need you to take action now. We are still here and ready to work with you on a statewide approach that ensures all educators and students have access to safe and just schools,” Thomas says in the letter.
Many Arizona school districts have given up the fight in the face of rising cases and returned to distance learning, despite the growing evidence of the emotional and academic cost to students, as well as the burden on parents and therefore the economy.