Just four of Hassell’s students — and no employees — have tested positive for the virus this fall. But in a state with rampant community spread, keeping the school up and running on any given day feels tenuous because so many teachers self-quarantine after possible exposure outside school.
“From any dimension you look at it, having schools open in person is better — social, emotional and learning. No one disagrees on this point,” Hassell said. “The question is: When does it become logistically impossible to do that anymore?”
That is a question confronting many U.S. school districts that offered in-person learning this fall, weeks before the coronavirus surge started sweeping through nearly every state. Even as more data suggests schools do not appear to significantly fuel community spread, elected and school officials who favor open classrooms are contending with a spiraling virus that threatens to overwhelm the fragile staffing systems and contact tracing that keep pandemic-era schools running.
“There is a fair amount of data that schools can be opened safely during the pandemic,” said David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has advised schools on how to open but also to reconsider when their regions’ rate of positive coronavirus test results surpasses 9 percent.
That means community spread in some places may now call for a “last resort,” Rubin said — a temporary move to online education for older students, who more easily transmit the virus and may be better able to manage online learning.
“We are in uncharted territory to the degree to which we are increasing exposure just by having everyone together right now. We need a little bit of cooling off,” he said. “There is still ample room to keep elementary and special needs kids in schools.”
The federal government has offered scant guidance, leaving school boards, superintendents and elected officials to determine their tipping points amid intense pressure from teacher unions and parents.
This month, New York City, home to the nation’s largest school system, announced it was shutting schools after its seven-day rolling average of positive tests reached 3 percent. In recent weeks, public schools in Boston and Detroit have suspended all or most in-person learning. Other school systems that have remained closed since March, including Seattle’s, are putting plans to reopen on ice.
The science on children and the coronavirus is evolving and remains tentative 11 months into the outbreak, creating hesitancy and confusion among school officials. Researchers say two things seem clear: Children tend to have milder cases than adults, and they can transmit the virus. There is growing evidence that children’s susceptibility and ability to infect others varies by age, with older kids’ experiences being closer to that of adults. But enough individual variability exists that many districts have erred on the side of caution — going against the trend in parts of Europe and Asia where schools have been open for months — and decided to stay closed.
Rhode Island, where statewide test positivity is about 6 percent, is a prominent exception. In an interview, Raimondo said she is “making real-time decisions” on the issue but believes schools “should be among the very last things to close.”
Pointing to state data, Raimondo argues that schools, with their controlled environments, may actually be safer for children: About 1,245 of some 98,000 Rhode Island students attending school at least partly in person had tested positive as of Nov. 21; the state says most cases were transmitted outside of school. In contrast, about 950 of nearly 50,000 students learning remotely had confirmed cases.
After imposing increasingly stiff restrictions on gatherings and businesses in recent weeks, Raimondo has followed the lead of some European countries, shutting bars and gyms while leaving prekindergarten through eighth grade open.
She gave school districts the option of limiting in-person instruction in high schools — the only campuses that have had more than 10 cases — from Nov. 30 through the end of the calendar year. At least two Rhode Island districts announced they would move all grades to distance learning for that period, decisions Raimondo called “a real shame.”
“I think there are massive long-term negative impacts on our children for keeping them out of school for a long time,” said Raimondo, whose two children attend private schools that have been open all fall. “Every child deserves that same opportunity. It shouldn’t just be for the parents who choose to and are able to pay tuition. … Throwing in the towel and letting kids stay home for a year and a half to languish — it’s just wrong.”
That is an increasingly mainstream view. A UNICEF report published this month said evidence shows that “with basic safety measures in place, the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them.” Citing data that shows infections at schools are often traced to off-campus transmission, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently called schools “one of the safest places” for children.
Some experts regard that as an overstatement. The data on the coronavirus in U.S. schools is far from complete, they note. Surveillance testing in public schools is vanishingly rare, and contact tracing is not always robust. A focus on risks to children overlooks the potential danger to adult employees, some say. In Rhode Island, state data show nearly 690 in-person school staffers have tested positive this fall. The state education department said it could not provide a total number of staff — which could help point toward a prevalence rate — but said this number is reflective of community rates.
Regardless of schools’ role in the spread, Rhode Island’s largest teacher unions say many schools are struggling as cases spike. The state’s contact tracing slowed this month, and unpredictable staffing has led to intermittent closures. The unions called for a “holiday pause” for all K-12 students.
Rhode Island’s school districts were allowed to reopen in September if local weekly rates averaged fewer than 100 new cases per 100,000 people, said Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Association Rhode Island. Now nearly every municipality is above that threshold by orders of magnitude. The state education department said its data on in-school transmission gives it confidence that classes can continue even at those levels.
“We have the same goal: We want to get kids back in school,” Purtill said. “We’re not sure it’s as safe as they think it is.”
Rhode Island began planning for in-person school “the moment we went out” in the spring, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said. Raimondo centralized the state’s strategy, putting all schools on the same academic calendar, creating testing sites exclusively for students and school employees, and setting up a 24-hour “command center,” staffed in part by the National Guard, that responds to parent and school concerns and troubleshoots problems by conducting school site visits.
Reopening plans were drafted by each of the state’s 36 school districts and had to be approved by the state. The plans vary widely, with some offering full in-person instruction and others hybrid. Parents could opt to keep their children home, so all also offer virtual schooling.
Among the students who returned to class was Leidy Perez, an 18-year-old senior at Providence Career & Technical Academy who hopes to become the first in her family to attend college when she graduates next year. Perez said she worries that if school closes again, she will not be able to finish her senior project on how graphic design can help people cope with mental health challenges.
“A lot of us don’t have the software that we use in graphic design,” Perez said.
But Perez said she also thinks about her parents, both of whom work in a factory that manufactures packaging.
“Just because us teenagers won’t die of covid, we go back home to people who could be in more serious danger of contracting covid,” Perez said.
Thomas DiPaola, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, said he knew of no districts eager to close schools.
“People overcame some major obstacles and challenges with respect to transportation, ventilation, air exchange,” he said. “Most would hate to see that go by the board. And fundamentally, they believe it’s just better for the kids.”
It is logistics, not fear of contagion, that Principal Bryan M. Byerlee sees as the biggest obstacle to keeping Garden City Elementary School in Cranston, R.I., open. His students are organized in small pods. But with each positive coronavirus case — of which there have been fewer than 10 among students and staff — comes “quite a big list” of others who need to self-quarantine, he said.
Teaching virtually and in person “has been a complete reboot” for teachers, he said. Even so, Byerlee said he thinks things are mostly going well. “We have to do this as much as we can for as long as we can.”
Hassell, the Scituate High principal, has also navigated new, sometimes surreal, hurdles. Parents were not consistently submitting required daily forms attesting that their children were fever- and symptom-free, so he had to hire an additional school nurse to screen students.
The school has poor ventilation, so the solution — approved by the state health department — was to place two fans in open windows, with one pointing in and one pointing out, he said. When the area got five inches of snow in early October, flakes blew inside classrooms as students were learning.
“It was one of those 2020 moments,” Hassell said.
That sort of account is one reason Nicole Casey said Rhode Island’s arrangement is unacceptable. An advocacy group she helped form, Rhode Island Parents/Educators for Safe Schools, has organized rallies and letter-writing campaigns opposing schools being open. To make certain schools aren’t stoking community transmission, she said, they need frequent surveillance testing to detect asymptomatic cases.
Casey, who teaches special education just across the border in Massachusetts, received a waiver to teach virtually for health reasons. She also opted for online learning for her kindergarten daughter, who is enrolled in Lincoln, R.I. But Casey argues they are still affected if schools are silently seeding local cases.
“If it drives spread, it will drive it into families, into communities, and it puts everyone’s lives at risk,” she said. “We’re literally within like a couple of months of having a vaccine available. It just seems like, why are we risking lives like this at this point?”
State officials insist that they aren’t — and that they are adjusting to problems. Infante-Green, the state education commissioner, said the state is training 500 substitute teachers to step in when too many staff members are out. New HEPA air purifiers are expected to be in 6,000 classrooms by the end of the month, allowing administrators such as Hassell to close the windows. A pilot surveillance testing program is about to launch, she said.
And with bars and other commercial sites closed or operating with reduced hours, contact tracers should be able to focus on schools, her department says.
“We will change anything and everything so that schools will remain open as long as they can,” Infante-Green said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t reach a threshold someday. But we are not near that.”