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Is School Safe? Will Districts Test For COVID-19? Answering Back-To-School Questions

Gonzalo Inclán and Enfrén Carreño of the Liceo Europeo school just outside of Madrid, Spain measure the space between desks in May.
Miguel Pereira
Getty Images
Gonzalo Inclán and Enfrén Carreño of the Liceo Europeo school just outside of Madrid, Spain measure the space between desks in May.

Parents, teachers and students across the country are gearing up for the new school year. But what school will look like is still a mystery.

Some districts, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, have announced plans to teach remotely for the start of the school year. President Trump told CBS Newsthat's "a terrible decision." But many educators remain hesitant to return to in-person classes without adequate safety measures in place.

We asked readers and listeners for your questions about reopening schools.

NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey and NPR education correspondent Cory Turner answer some below. The responses are edited for length and clarity.

Are kids really less likely to contract COVID-19 or merely less likely to show symptoms and/or negative effects? I'm a schoolteacher and I think this is really vital to our understanding of going back to school in the fall. — Christine, Northbridge, Mass.

AUBREY: Well, kids definitely do get the virus. Overall, they tend not to get as sick as adults. Pediatrician Aaron Carroll of Indiana University told me, "There seems to be less transmission from kids to adults than there is adults to adults. Kids don't seem to be superspreaders. We don't have reports of sort of, you know, a kid going somewhere and spreading it to a bunch of other kids or even a bunch of other adults."

We pretty much closed schools in March, right as the virus started to circulate more widely. So we have not been in a situation to find out if kids might actually be superspreaders. There's still quite a bit of uncertainty.

It seems reopening is dangerous no matter which way you look at it. If the doctors and infectious disease experts could snap their fingers and implement their ideal plan without any of the normal political loopholes, what would it look like? — Chris, Chandler, Ariz.

TURNER: So I think if you talk to school leaders and say, "what is your ideal?" they would say without hesitation bringing all the kids back. They know that children are safer in their schools. There are lots of kids in this country who are, for example, food insecure, who may be experiencing abuse at home — not to mention the obvious academic benefits of simply being in school. We know that remote learning is just not that good.

But then what would that look like, having all kids in school? Ideally, they would still be socially distanced. Ideally, kids will be wearing masks. The challenge, though, is ideal runs headlong into the real. When you space out desks, suddenly you have to put those extra kids in the gymnasium or you start having class outside — and then suddenly you also need more teachers to be able to do that. I'm not sure there is reconciling the ideal with the real.

AUBREY: Many states have mask mandates for schools. Often it's for older kids, middle school and up, but increasingly, given all the new evidence on masking, infectious disease pediatricians say it makes sense to try to mask all students as much as possible. I think the best hope we have for getting our kids back in school is to keep communities spread of the virus low.

Are any school districts planning on-site COVID testing? — Julie, Seattle

TURNER: I have only heard anecdotally of one district in Illinois that is considering doing this. And that's because they have a special relationship with the university nearby, which is doing some unique testing.

For the most part, though, what I've heard from district leaders is testing is expensive. It's a question of access. It's a question of staffing and logistics. So for the most part, I think what we're gonna see schools doing is temperature checks. I think also schools are moving to having parents attest to the fact that their children are not showing symptoms and that they took their temperature in the morning.

AUBREY: It's going to come down to the honor system. It is not feasible to do a daily temperature check at school or on the bus every day. It's also not the best screening tool, because we know that a lot of kids with the virus don't spike a fever. So asking about symptoms and keeping kids home when they do have symptoms may be the better way.

What happens when a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19? Will the whole school be quarantined for two weeks and then retested? — Jane, Long Beach, Calif.

TURNER: This differs in every district. Lots of schools are trying to divide kids into what they're calling pods, so that the same small group of, say, 10 or 12 kids will be together all day. That way, if there is a reported infection from one of those kids, then ideally you're only quarantining that group instead of every child in the building.

Do these hybrid schedules [that ask students to come to school on alternating days] actually minimize risk, or are they just a consequence of schools lacking space for appropriate distance? — Julie, Seattle

AUBREY: Well, if having fewer kids in school buildings makes social distancing practical or possible, and it limits prolonged contact in crowded indoor spaces, then yes, there is absolutely merit to this. And it is driven by the fact that there's not enough space to keep kids distance if you have them all in the school buildings all at one time.

What objective criteria can families use to decide whether the amount of community transmission is at a safe enough level to open schools? If the answer is test positivity percentage, how do we define the locality for which that number is relevant? — Jenifer, Phoenix

AUBREY: You'd want to look at community levels — and there's a range of metrics that communities can consider, they can look at positivity rates and testing or the number of new cases.

One of the big challenges during this pandemic is that there has not been and still is not a unified national approach to communicating risk. But I will say there's a consensus among a lot of infectious disease experts that when there are 25 or more new cases a day per 100,000 people, a county is then in the red zone, and should be considering measures such as stay at home advisories. And that may include closing schools.

TURNER: One thing I've heard from superintendents across the country is that they spend a lot of time, just about every single day, looking at infection rates, transmission numbers, local and regional infection data. They talk about being on a first name basis with the head of the local health department.

How do districts with a 100% virtual learning plan to meet the needs of special education students required by federal law? — Robert, Decatur, Ga.

TURNER: This is honestly one of the most important questions that school leaders, teachers, and parents are facing. And there is not an easy answer.

I think anyone you talk to in a school setting will say this spring was devastating for all students, but especially for children with disabilities. There are just certain services that are very difficult to provide online. And that assumes that you and your family have access to broadband [Internet], and lots of kids don't.

There is a real concern now among school leaders that they're going to get hammered with lawsuits by parents who are rightfully arguing that their kids did not get the kind of educational services that schools are required, by law, to provide. There is just no easy solution here. This helps explain why many districts that are provisionally reopening are prioritizing, first and foremost, that children with disabilities can return first.

Is the government going to give more funding to reduce class size and provide more teachers? — Lynn, Phoenix

TURNER: This is the question on the minds and mouths of every school leader and teacher I have spoken with. Congress did pass the CARES Act a while ago. That included about $13.5 billion for K-12 schools. But just about anybody who works in and around or on behalf of schools will tell you they need at least 10 times as much not only to cover the costs of COVID-19, but also because this is happening at the same time that we're experiencing a pretty crushing recession. States are absolutely slashing their education budgets.

It's also important to know that despite President Trump's very real push to reopen schools, there has been very little talk from his administration on actually helping schools pay for any of this.

What are you looking for this fall, as the school year begins? — Sarah McCammon, NPR

AUBREY: I think I'll be looking for what we can learn about transmission. Are kids indeed spreading it in this classroom setting? That's a really, really important question to answer.

TURNER: I am going to be looking at the mental health toll this has taken. I have heard from a lot of educators and a lot of kids, and I've seen it myself — this has been incredibly difficult on kids. It has obliterated many of their support systems, and it's distanced them from many of the very important grown-ups in their lives. And obviously the other kids in their lives! That is going to take a toll. That is a trauma, and I don't even think we've begun to reckon with that.

AUBREY: I completely agree. I mean, I want my kids back in school. My hope is that everyone heeds the warnings and messages coming from public health experts and infectious disease experts that we all have to do the right thing if we plan to send our kids back to school.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.