These Are the Only 2 Ways Schools Can Open Safely, Harvard Doctor Says

If schools don't meet these two conditions, they shouldn't be opening this fall, Ashish Jha, MD, says.

Most parents agree that they want their kids to go back to school safely as soon as possible, but not everyone is on the same page about how to get schools up and running as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. The discussion surrounding reopening schools has been a point of contention all summer and has gained even more steam as the 2020-2021 academic year inches closer. Medical experts and government officials have all rushed to voice their opinions about opening schools in the next month or two, but Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) Director Ashish Jha, MD, says two specific things need to happen before students and teachers can safely return the classroom. "We can open schools safely," he wrote in an opinion piece for The Boston Globe. "Doing so means meeting two sets of conditions: The level of the coronavirus in the community must be low, and the school itself must be prepared."

1. How low do coronavirus levels need to be?

"There is no magic number that will make reopening entirely safe," Jha says, but he encourages local officials to consult risk-assessment tools, such as the COVID risk-level dashboard developed by HGHI. This dashboard color codes counties throughout the country according to the number of daily new cases per 100,000 people.

"If you are in a red zone, there is no way to open schools safely," Jha says. The HGHI defines the red zone as 25 or more cases per 100,000 people. The red zone is "the tipping point" when stay-at-home orders are necessary, according to HGHI.

"Orange zones will struggle as well," Jha writes. The orange zone is when there are 10-24 cases per 100,000 people, the HGHI says. "If districts open schools in these areas, the chances are that those schools will probably close quickly when teachers, staff, and possibly students get sick in large numbers."

If leaders in red zones or orange zones are determined to reopen schools in the fall, Jha says, "they must bring down the level of coronavirus. Way down. Starting now."

To do so, Jha recommends moving to phase 1 of the White House reopening guidelines—which includes keeping bars, indoor dining, and retail shops closed—enforcing mask mandates, and increasing testing and contact tracing. "If counties implement these guidelines, it's possible that these communities could get back to in-person learning sometime this fall," writes Jha.

Students socially distanced in class wearing masks during coronavirus pandemic back to school

2. What does it mean to "safely" reopen schools?

"School districts have neither the resources nor the know-how to get their buildings ready to open safely," says Jha, who notes schools are largely lacking the resources to create a safe environment for students and staff to return to. According to The Washington Post, during a school reopening conversation at the White House, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) President Sally Goza said, "Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the well-being of children will clearly require new investments in our schools. We urge you to ensure that schools receive the resources necessary so that funding does not stand in the way of keeping our children safe or present at school."

Some suggestions Jha offers to help keep students safe include holding outdoor classes and using libraries, cafeterias, and school auditoriums or gyms to hold classes. According to Jha, resources from the government, if given, should, in part, go toward installing updated air filter systems and administering regular testing of teachers and students.

While school reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been delayed, precautions have already been outlined by some states on a local level. In his opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, MD, writes: "In my home state, Connecticut, K-12 students will be required to wear masks. Many districts are attempting to change the structure of the week to make classrooms less crowded. New York City and other districts are contemplating staggered schedules, in which students would spend some days in the classroom and others at home. The use of hand-washing stations will be routine. Desks will be farther apart. Teachers should be given protective equipment. Colleges are using pooled testing of students and teachers to reduce risk, and this practice could be adopted widely."

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Both Jha and Gottlieb want to get students back in school, but not at the risk of their health. "Kids are less vulnerable to the disease itself but plenty vulnerable from the massive disruptions of a failed pandemic response," Jha writes. "If we deprive them of in-person education, we will have failed them too. We must commit to not letting our kids down." To see when doctors would feel comfortable having their kids return to in-person learning, check out 70 Percent of Doctors Say This Is When They'll Send Their Kids Back to School.

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