There's a clear, scientific path to safely reopening schools. The real barrier now is politics.

Aria Bendix
·7 min read
texas school reopening
Elementary-school students walk to classes in Godley, Texas, on August 5. LM Otero/AP Images

By now, research clearly supports the idea that schools can safely resume in-person learning in the US.

A January study of 11 school districts in North Carolina identified just 32 coronavirus infections in schools over nine weeks. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected minimal transmission among K-12 schools in Wood County, Wisconsin.

In an opinion article last month, CDC researchers called for reopening schools, with a few ground rules: Masks should be worn at all times. Social distancing should be upheld. And indoor sports practices and competitions should be limited.

But a few political obstacles stand in the way.

For one, many US school districts lack the funding to improve their buildings' ventilation systems, routinely test teachers and staff members, or reduce classroom sizes so students remain 6 feet apart - measures that would make parents and teachers more comfortable with in-person learning.

The CDC's threshold for resuming full in-person instruction is also tough for most counties to meet right now, since it requires low levels of community transmission. That means that in some states, reopenings have been delayed even though they might be relatively safe for students and teachers.

Then there's the lingering issue of mask resistance. In states like Georgia or Iowa, classrooms are already open, but many school districts haven't enforced strict mask policies. That leaves students and teachers at a higher risk of infection, and infections could force schools to close again.

"We've had a lot of issues with reopening based on science," Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Insider. "I'd love to see a world where there is a little bit more of a practical engagement of the states and mayors with the scientists."

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Students return to in-person learning in Orange, California, on August 24. Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images

Polarization around school mask policies

Stances on school reopenings have increasingly fallen into two camps, according to Daniel Benjamin, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Duke University: There's either a general neglect of safety measures, or too much risk aversion.

At one end of the spectrum, Benjamin told Insider, "you have schools that are paralyzed by fear."

"They just don't have the political will to open, despite the fact that if you do mitigation strategies it's safer for kids and adults to be in school than to be in the community," Benjamin added.

Then there's the group at the other end.

"They don't believe in masking," Benjamin said. "They don't have the backup of the [school] board. They don't have the backup of the superintendent. The parents tell the kids don't wear a mask in school. Masking is not enforced in the schools. And that's dangerous. That's not a good plan."

face mask kid school covid 19
A kindergartner removes her mask before posing for a portrait during picture day at Rogers International School in Stamford, Connecticut, on September 23. John Moore/Getty Images

A ProPublica analysis published in November found that 11 states were not requiring students to wear masks, even when they were gathered indoors or at sporting events.

Benjamin suggested that schools use face coverings as an incentive for in-person learning.

"It's super simple: If you don't want to mask, we have an alternative for you. You can learn remotely," he said. "Schools that are closed right now can really leverage that as a part of reopening."

A lack of funding for safety measures

President Joe Biden has set a goal of reopening most K-8 public schools in his first 100 days in office - roughly by the end of April.

His coronavirus relief proposal would allocate $130 billion to help primary schools reopen with the appropriate safety precautions. Congress could vote on the final legislation in mid-March. Schools could use the funding to improve ventilation, reduce class sizes, hire more janitors, distribute personal protective equipment, or modify classroom layouts for social distancing.

Many schools are waiting on this funding before reopening to avoid putting teachers or other staff at risk. Teachers unions across the country have also been pushing for safety assurances before in-person learning resumes - that classrooms are well ventilated, community transmission is low, or vaccines are more widely available to school staff.

schools reopening protest
Teachers, parents, and children marching in Brooklyn, New York, to protest the reopening of public schools. Mark Lennihan/AP

Earlier this month, Philadelphia teachers held virtual classes outdoors in frigid weather to protest the city's school-reopening plan, which included using windows and fans, rather than mechanical ventilation, to circulate air.

Chicago teachers also refused to report to classrooms unless the city met their safety demands, such as more frequent cleaning of classrooms and permission for teachers with high-risk family members to continue working remotely. And in Montclair, New Jersey, the teachers union called for vaccinating all educators before resuming in-person learning.

The longer schools wait to establish and implement their safety plans, the higher the costs to students.

A lack of access to school meals has put millions of households at increased risk of food insecurity, a report published in the American Journal of Public Health in October said. An analysis from McKinsey & Company suggested that American students, on average, were likely to lose five to nine months' worth of learning by June because of the pandemic. A report published in November found that student achievement in math in third through eighth grades was 5 to 10 percentile points lower than before the pandemic.

"This is all expected and known when you have kids out of school for an entire year - millions of kids - that there would be devastating consequences," Joseph Allen, the director of Harvard's Healthy Buildings Program, told NPR last week. "And our country has not treated it like the emergency it is."

The CDC's strict reopening guidelines

The CDC's guidelines about when it's safe for kids to return to school pose another challenge for districts looking to reopen.

The agency recommends that counties have fewer than 50 weekly COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people or test-positivity rates below 8% before fully reopening K-12 schools - thresholds that are often hard to meet. Though cases are declining across the US, 14 states still have positivity rates above 8%, and data from The New York Times indicates that 35 states have at least 105 weekly cases per 100,000 people, on average.

"Wake-up call to parents: If schools start following this new guidance strictly, kids are not getting back to full-time school," Allen told NPR.

Many states have not prioritized restrictions that could help lower cases, thereby giving schools a better chance of meeting the CDC's guidelines. Restaurants and bars, venues that can easily facilitate coronavirus transmission, are open in most of the country while many schools remain closed. Infectious-disease experts say that doesn't make sense.

"As we look at the school setting itself, it's somewhere that you can have some control over whether kids are wearing masks and whether kids are physically distanced," Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, told Insider, adding that activities outside of school could likely contribute more to transmission.

school reopen coronavirus Texas
Elementary-school students in Godley entering a class. LM Otero/AP

The CDC's own instructions say that "K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely."

Some states, however, have reopened schools without following that guidance or meeting the CDC's case thresholds. Effective last week, K-12 schools in Iowa, which has a test-positivity rate of about 13%, are required to offer in-person learning for all students who want to return to the classroom. Arkansas, Florida, and Texas have also ordered schools to allow students back inside.

Andrew Dunn contributed reporting.

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