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If You Think There Will Be Clear, Unequivocal Guidance on Opening Schools… Think Again!

July 12, 2020

Parents, teachers, and employers are all waiting for clear, unequivocal guidance on opening schools. Based on everything I’ve read, they will have to wait years to get that information. “How to Reopen Schools: What science and Other Countries Can Teach Us” NYTimes article in today’s paper by Pam Belluck, Apoorva Mandavilli and is a good case in point. Midway through the article, which offers lots of conflicting information and research, there is a section titled “The evidence from abroad”. Here it is:

So far, countries that reopened schools after reducing infection levels — and imposed requirements like physical distancing and limits on class sizes — have not seen a surge in coronavirus cases.

Norway and Denmark are good examples. Both reopened their schools in April, a month or so after they were closed, but they initially opened them only for younger children, keeping high schools shut until later. They strengthened sanitizing procedures, and have kept class size limited, children in small groups at recess and space between desks. Neither country has seen a significant increase in cases.

There have not yet been rigorous scientific studies on the potential for school-based spread, but a smattering of case reports, most of them not yet peer-reviewed, bolster the notion that it is not inevitably a high risk.

If I were a school superintendent I would not want to base my decision on “a smattering of case reports” that had “...not yet been peer-reviewed” to make my decision. Nor would I want to base my decision on the experience of “…countries that reopened schools after reducing infection levels — and imposed requirements like physical distancing and limits on class sizes — have not seen a surge in coronavirus cases” because our country has not uniformly taken the steps to reduce infection levels. And what the article doesn’t tell readers is the extent to which those successful countries provided schools with the physical resources they needed to reopen… which is clearly going to be a factor in making the decision about whether to open or not.

Here’s my take: the decision on reopening schools is analogous to the snow day decision. When I needed to decide on whether to open school or not when it snowed, some decisions were easy. For example, if there was 3″ of snow on the ground, snow falling at a rate that limited visibility, and pre-existing icy roads the  decision was a no-brainer. The tough ones were those where information was incomplete or ambiguous or cases where the conditions were varied within the district. For example, if weather services had conflicting forecasts with regard to the snowfall, the cloud cover was thick, but no snow had begun. Or, there was snow in one section of the district but sunshine in another section. Or, the roads were hazardous because of previous ice or snow storms. Or 25% of the staff lived in a region that was getting lots of snow while we might not get any….

And here’s one difference between the snow call and the reopening call: neither the Governor nor the President nor the cadre of voters who supported the President ever publicly questioned my judgement… only the parents… The reopening decision is the snow decision on steroids…

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