Reopening schools – a societal imperative

A pandemic, as its name suggests, is an epidemic that is everywhere. It affects countries all over the world and many communities. And while we all have our individual part to play — be it by adhering to social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands frequently and well, avoiding crowds and closed spaces as much as possible, for example — this will only take us so far. You can’t fight a pandemic as an individual. We need collective, coordinated responses, at the level of institutions, businesses and states. 

In my community of Athens, GA, right now there is a heated debate about schools, with parents and teachers weighing in on how we should have only online school as the coronavirus spread in the community is accelerating, or we need to open at all costs because schools are not a luxury. And while these two points of view feel contradictory, I agree with both. We do need schools to be open (online school will hugely underserve the community and create even more inequalities) and opening at any cost seems irresponsible. Nothing will ever be 100% safe but we need to reach a level of risk where most of the community feels that the benefits outweigh the risks.

We need to make opening schools the priority for our society and see what else needs to happen for that to be a reality. 

Helen Jenkins here has a good Twitter thread about this:

What are we as a society, as a community willing to give up in order to open schools? I would argue that bars need to close, indoor dining, any large indoor gatherings, etc. Several public health specialists have talked about a “risk budget”. If schools are a priority, what else do we need to do to “balance the books”?

In the words of infectious disease doctor Dr. Bhadelia:

Ideally, our national and state leaders should be stepping up and taking responsibility rather than shifting it and pushing it down to the individuals. We would want them to ensure PPE for everyone that needs it, a basic income for people even if they cannot work (so they don’t have to risk their health, or they don’t have to go to work sick, or be able to care for a family member), to develop a national testing strategy, to coordinate large rigorous studies into what treatments work, etc. 

It is infuriating to see people struggle with really difficult decisions, often of life vs. livelihood because our leaders will not step up, standing by as the pandemic rages on.

If our elected leaders will not, I would ask as a community – what can we do?

Can we push for measures that will keep ALL our community safer?

For example, we know that to control community spread test-trace-isolate is essential. Can we test the schools community, regularly, easily and cheaply to ensure that any outbreaks are quickly contained? 

Do we need to lobby for further testing budgets? Can we push for a budget for fast point-of-care tests to regularly monitor the school population as has been advocated for universities? Are there labs with testing capacity that are under utilized? Can we shine a light on this and encourage better logistics? Where are the contact tracers? If they haven’t been hired, why not? Are people not wanting to speak to contact tracers? Can we organize some information sessions about why this matters? Can we organize hotel rooms for people that want to isolate (voluntarily) but cannot in their current living arrangements to limit in-household spread?

We can also engage in risk mitigation. We know the risks are lower outdoors, at a distance and masked. Especially for the younger kids, who might find it harder to distance and stay masked, could we have them spend most of their time outside, be it on the playground or maybe using other resources in the community like covered pavilions at local parks? If we have to go inside, use larger spaces and with windows and good ventilation (a window isn’t enough, you need good airflow but there are ways of doing that). Maybe for higher risks groups we use even smaller “pods” and more risk mitigation strategies. 

If you are already starting at a low level of risk because COVID-19 is not widespread in a community, there will be a lot less risk mitigation needed to reach what might be an acceptable level of risk to the community.

For some people, even this might be too high-risk so we need to make sure that these individuals — be it students or teachers — are not an afterthought. (If you are reading this from Athens, GA, yes I have many concerns and questions about both the CCSD plans and the emails that went out to teachers and parents and have engaged separately on that.)

Education and schools are priorities and they need to be central to our reopening plans. But it will need more than masks and a promise of social distance to make this a safe reality for all. If we cannot limit community spread, we might not be able to open schools.

Further reading