Impact Series

What the science says about reopening colleges: Consultants name for nuanced strategy, based mostly on knowledge

The reader board at North Beach Elementary School in Seattle, sharing a sentiment that will likely continue into the fall as schools offer remote learning due to COVID-19. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

As University of Washington epidemiologist Brandon Guthrie sifts through mounds of research in his Seattle home office, seeking to better understand the whys and hows of COVID-19, in the background there are personal reminders of the importance of his work. Two reminders, in fact: one going into kindergarten, the other into fourth grade.

PREVIOUSLY: Seattle schools leader recommends remote-only classes in September

On Wednesday the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, which his children attend, recommended that all classes should be taught remotely through online learning in the fall, “until the risk of significant transmission of COVID-19 has decreased enough to resume in-person instruction.” The school board will vote in August on the recommendation, which has the support of the teachers’ union. Seattle schools previously proposed a hybrid approach, blending in-person and remote learning.

While Guthrie wouldn’t second-guess the decision, it did not sit well with the UW global health scientist.

Brandon Guthrie, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health.

“It makes me very sad that we are in a position where we’re having to do this, and people are feeling like this is the best option,” he said. “I hope that people are doing the work to make plans for how can we maximize the educational benefits to kids — that we don’t just fall back on what was done in the spring.”

Guthrie earlier this month led a project that compiled and summarized the approaches taken by 15 other countries that have reopened their schools during the pandemic, pulling lessons for the schools teaching America’s 56.6 million kids, from preschool to high school seniors.

Epidemiologists everywhere are scrambling to make sense of COVID, piecing together an understanding of a disease that defies convention, has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and continues to upend lives across the planet. They’re looking at wide-ranging studies, teasing out relevant information to help guide informed decisions on everything from big issues like school openings to whether it’s OK to play at the beach.

Eric Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Washington State University, is particularly concerned about the spread of infections to teachers and families if schools open in person.

“The conversation is being driven by the idea of ‘get the kids back in school, get the kids back in school’ that isn’t recognizing the risk to teachers and their families,” Lofgren said.

Teachers around the country have echoed those worries. Depending on the district, many educators are in higher risk age groups for COVID. There has not been a concerted effort to ensure their safety by providing personal protective equipment or training in how to use it.

Student-free halls at Loyal Heights Elementary School in Seattle. (Kurt Schlosser / GeekWire)

Guthrie’s study looked at safety strategies being practiced at schools internationally, which included combinations of requiring masks, reducing the number of students per classroom, temperature checks, social distancing and increased handwashing. Some countries have limited in-person classes to younger students who appear to be at lower risk of contracting and spreading COVID and from experiencing more severe symptoms.

Given the variable risks, both epidemiologists urged decision makers and the public to embrace some nuance and flexibility in decisions about schools. That includes looking at elementary, middle and high school differently based on COVID transmission and educational needs. The choices need not be all or nothing, and should be viewed as reversible, they said.

“Whether we reopen schools is a dial and not a switch,” Lofgren said, “and not a switch we can only flip once.”

They also questioned the priorities of government leaders related to social distancing policies and the push to reopen parts of the economy ahead of academic institutions. Washington’s bars and restaurants, for example, allow indoor seating at reduced capacity despite the surge in infections among young adults. Some 39% of COVID cases are in 20-39 year olds, according data shared Monday by the state Department of Health.

COVID-19 cases in Washington state by age, current as of July 20, 2020. (Washington Department of Health)

“One of the first [COVID] control measures was to close schools, and one of the last things we’re going to do is open schools,” Guthrie said. “That is insane.”

A key question that has been difficult to answer is the impact of school openings on COVID transmission. Infections can be harder to detect in kids given the asymptomatic cases, and there’s the challenge of doing effective contact tracing to map the source and path of transmission.

“One of my really important takeaways is anywhere you see infections among school kids, it’s really unclear whether those are true school outbreaks or if you’re seeing community outbreaks that are appearing in the schools,” Guthrie said.

He fears that an increase in COVID infections could be blamed erroneously on reopened schools. A recent article in the Washington Post, for example, reported that some teachers providing summer school instruction tested positive for coronavirus, but there was no indication of where it was contracted or if students were infected.

While public schools in Seattle move toward remote learning, President Trump and others in his administration have pushed for schools to reopen in the fall. American Association for Pediatrics and National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine have also advocated for reopening in person, provided safety measures are implemented.

Remote learning is disproportionately harmful to kids who struggle with online learning and have less family support. Affluent families can supplement online education with tutoring and other services. Online learning is less effective for younger children, who also rely heavily on social interactions as an key component of their education. And there’s the tremendous challenge faced by parents who are juggling work, childcare and homeschooling.

In June, Washington state released a reopening guide to help school districts. This month, King County shared a report concluding that schools could reopen if they implemented safety measures and if the overall community COVID levels were low enough, but that the recent surge in infections pushed the region into unsafe territory. Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau referred to the increase in her announcement.

“The current trajectory of infection in King County and the most recent data and information from public health makes it clear that resuming school in-person this fall is impossible,” said Juneau in a statement.

Messages for families posted at the front door of Seattle’s Loyal Heights Elementary School. (Lisa Stiffler / GeekWire)

So far the Lake Washington School District, which includes the city of Redmond and Microsoft’s headquarters, is giving families the option of a hybrid approach or all-remote learning, as is the Tacoma School District south of Seattle. The Bellevue and Renton school districts, both located east of Seattle, announced Wednesday afternoon to do remote learning for at least the start of school.

In a survey of users by Blind, an anonymous professional app, only one-third of the 1,030 U.S. tech workers who responded said they were in favor of sending their kids to school in the fall. In an interview that aired Wednesday between Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, Gates said he’d opt for in-person instruction for his kids if the school was taking safety precautions and particularly if the children were younger and could avoid contact with grandparents.

Guthrie wondered how families will manage kids in situations where schools remain closed.

“The subtle assumption there is kids are going to be locked away at home and not out and about, and that definitely is not going to be the case,” he said. “That may have been the case in the spring, but six-to-12 months of that is not going to happen.

“It’s not schools or home quarantine, it’s schools or some version of childcare, co-op, whatever. And in some ways, there may be higher risk in those environments because they’re less controlled.”

Editors note: Story was updated with new announcements from Washington school districts regarding remote learning.

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