What are the pros and cons of reopening schools this fall?

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pressured schools to reopen, and President Donald Trump threatened to withhold funding from schools that don't fully reopen. Getty Images

As Minnesota parents await a decision from Gov. Tim Walz about the start of the fall 2020 school year, the debate over reopening schools in the United States is becoming more fraught with each passing day.

The U.S. reported more than 76,500 new cases last Thursday, breaking its daily record for the 11th time this month. And case counts continue to climb in Minnesota, as officials implore residents to stick to social distancing and wearing masks as the pandemic drags on and fears mount about a second wave of infection this fall.

The national debate was launched into the spotlight this month when President Donald Trump threatened to withhold funding for schools that don’t reopen, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pressured districts to resume classes. Walz has promised an announcement by the end of July, and until then school districts are expected to prepare for three scenarios: distance learning, in-person learning, or a combination of both.

In Minnesota, some Senate Republicans are pressing Walz to let school districts decide whether to reopen. On Monday, the Senate passed a resolution stating that Walz shouldn’t use his emergency powers to order schools closed, limit their activities or change schedules. The Senate also took up a bill that would give schools $2.5 million in “reopening grants” to pay for costs related to in-person instruction. 

While the political debate rages on, experts have released a number of recommendations for reopening schools and how to do so safely, including the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The three reports mostly agree on steps to keep kids and staff safe in schools, including with common-sense measures like handwashing, social distancing and frequent cleaning. The AAP and National Academies both recommend reopening schools, if it’s possible to do so safely.

Here are some of the benefits to reopening schools:

In-person classes are more effective than online or remote learning. Weeks of school closures due to the pandemic combined with summer break could lead to a “COVID slide,” where students lose significant academic progress. 

Researchers fear some students may struggle to recover, and that the interruptions could have lasting effects — especially for young children and underserved students. Distance learning this spring was especially challenging for low-income students, students learning English, students with disabilities and other marginalized students.

Keeping schools closed could worsen educational disparities across demographic and geographic groups, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says. This is a pressing concern in Minnesota, which has some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in education.

Schools are important for more than just academics. Students learn reading, writing and arithmetic in school — and practice social and emotional skills. Without in-person classes, children will miss out on opportunities to build relationships with people outside their homes during a critical period of their development, the National Academies report says.

School closures could also worsen other health issues, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many low-income students rely on schools for nutrition meals and could miss out during distance learning this fall. Plus, signs of mental health struggles, abuse and neglect that a teacher might spot during a normal school year could go unchecked, the report says.

Additionally, school is a form of affordable, reliable child care, and reopening would ease strain for parents tasked with working and ad-hoc homeschooling this spring.

Kids are at lower risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. Children may be less likely to get sick with COVID-19 and tend to experience milder symptoms when they do get sick, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. There’s also some evidence that they may be less likely to transmit the infection to others, but the research isn’t conclusive.

And so far, there’s little evidence of schools causing significant community outbreaks in some countries that kept schools open, said Dr. Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

In the cases where there were outbreaks connected to schools — like in Israel, where cases are surging again — they were among older students, suggesting that it may be less risky to prioritize in-person lessons for elementary schoolers, Gordon said.

We know how to mitigate risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and National Academies reports include a number of steps that experts agree would reduce the risk of infection for both children and adults, like:

  • assigning students to cohorts to minimize movement and mingling,
  • improving ventilation,
  • keeping sick students and staff home, and
  • holding classes outside whenever possible. 

Here are some of the risks of reopening schools:

Teachers, school staff and families could get sick. One in four teachers are at a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 because of their age or an underlying medical condition, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This proportion is about the same for workers across industries, the report says; however, the “sheer volume of traffic and tight quarters in many school environments” could make social distancing difficult. “For higher-risk teachers, failure to achieve safe working conditions could have very serious results,” according to Kaiser. 

Although children are less likely to show symptoms or become seriously sick from COVID-19, they could unknowingly sicken teachers or infect their families.

Kids may be lower-risk for COVID-19, but they’re not no-risk. Dr. Fred Gerr, a professor at the University of Iowa, said it’s important not to write off the risk for children. Deaths among children are rare, but some children do get very ill, he said. And researchers are still investigating the inflammatory condition linked to COVID-19 that has hospitalized and even killed some children across the world.

Taking the steps necessary to mitigate risk in schools could be a huge logistical and financial challenge. Districts will also have think about a myriad of measures, like creating enough space for social distancing (in Minnesota, classroom and bus capacity would be capped at 50%); eliminating or frequently disinfecting high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and counters; efficiently screening students and staff for symptoms each day; buying enough supplies to reduce sharing; and preventing students from congregating in cafeterias and hallways.

Gerr said some states and districts have released detailed plans for reopening schools, but he worries that even the hardest-working educators might not be able to execute them perfectly, especially given staffing shortages and tight budgets.

“To superimpose all of these requirements on schools and expect every single one of them to occur starts to sound like something NASA might have difficulty achieving,” Gerr said. “A failure in one (part of the plan) creates opportunity for spread.”

Enforcing social distancing and mask wearing alone could be a monumental task for teachers, especially with younger students. The AAP recommends face coverings for elementary school students only if the risks outweigh the benefits; for example, as long as kids aren’t touching their face excessively while wearing masks.

Safely reopening schools will also depend on local health infrastructure, since cases of COVID-19 in a school could require extensive contact tracing, Gerr said. If one student gets sick, ideally everyone in all their classes would be traced, he said — which might not be possible.

“It is fairly likely the vast majority of public health entities in the United States will not have sufficient resources to engage in full and timely contact tracing at current infection rates,” he said.

Aging school buildings could pose an additional challenge to improving ventilation, thought to be an important step in reducing the virus’ spread. More than half of school districts nationwide need to update their facilities, a recent government report found, and 41% need to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half of schools.

And these plans will come with a cost. The National Academies report recommends that federal and state governments provide “significant resources” to schools that reopen, since they “will not be able to take on the entire financial burden of implementing the mitigation strategies.”

Following the CDC’s recommendations would cost about $1.8 million for a school district with eight buildings and 3,200 students, according to one estimate. That expense could be far out of reach for Minnesota districts, many of which have already reported budget shortfalls.

“In the context of, frankly, a failed (national) prevention strategy, this starts to look pretty Herculean to me,” Gerr said.

Because of a Minnesota Department of Health data reporting issue, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of COVID-19 cases reported on July 20.

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.