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Schools have unique risk factors that make reopening safely more difficult than reopening businesses. Getty Images
  • COVID-19 numbers are rising as schools face reopening challenges.
  • Proponents for reopening schools want kids to have socialization and benefits of in-class learning.
  • Those against it argue that schools aren’t yet equipped to open safely.
  • The CDC has released recommendations for safe school reopenings that may be out of reach for many schools.
  • Unlike reopening businesses, the school setting involves close and prolonged exposure that could increase risk for all involved.

In early July, as COVID-19 numbers skyrocketed across the country, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, made the argument that if Walmart could be open, then schools could be, too.

In the weeks since, Florida has become a COVID-19 hot spot, with ICUs filling up and more than 5,000 people dead.

Now Florida’s largest teachers union has sued the governor over his hard line on schools reopening.

But there are also those across the country who wonder the same thing Gov. DeSantis does: If Walmart can remain open, why not schools?

Justine Green is the principal at Tamim Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, and author of the children’s book “Completely Me.” She said she’s seen firsthand the conflict opening up schools has created between parents, educators, and local government officials.

“Some people understand the need for socialization and in-class learning while others are concerned about safety over educational strides,” Green said. “This has been a big challenge for educational leadership: to find the balance between all sides of the conversation.”

But finding that balance isn’t necessarily easy, especially when considering the insights of public health experts like Dr. Sri Banerjee, core faculty in Walden University’s PhD in Public Health Program and an epidemiologist with 20 years of experience.

He explained that one of the biggest challenges to opening schools is the potential increase in the number of outbreaks that will then result.

“There is potential for spread in multigenerational households in which a school-age child brings home a COVID-19 infection and infects their grandparents,” Banerjee said, adding that children who are unable to wear a mask due to health conditions such as asthma, epilepsy, or heart disease also have a higher risk for infection.

Keeping kids and faculty safe in a school setting isn’t as simple as reminding everyone to maintain physical or social distance — especially when the number of children in a classroom makes maintaining that distance impossible.

Dr. Chris Colbert is the assistant program director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He has been battling COVID-19 on the front lines since its emergence in the United States.

He says reopening schools stands in direct opposition to reducing the spread of COVID-19.

“The most important factor of mitigating transmission of any virus is limited exposure and/or contact,” Colbert said. “These two factors are least preserved in school settings.”

In a classroom setting, typical interactions between students and faculty almost guarantee close and prolonged contact. And as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, the balancing act between safety and education will remain a difficult one to maintain with in-person schooling.

Teachers are now going to be expected not only to teach, but to also monitor their students’ handwashing, physical distancing, mask-wearing, and hygiene practices.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released some guidance on best practices for safe school reopenings, but educators and parents alike have been quick to point out how difficult some of those guidelines may be for kids to follow, and how ill-prepared many schools may be to meet the benchmarks now being set.

“We as educators need time to put these protocols into place to accurately provide the safe, sanitary environment expected of us,” Green said. “We are learning more about this virus each day, and with that knowledge comes new regulations.”

While she explains that districts aren’t taking any of this lightly and want the best for their students’ and teachers’ health, getting there may take time.

Parents, students, and teachers are all eager for a return to normal. But Banerjee says opening schools too soon could lead to massive outbreaks that put the lives of children, teachers, and their families at risk.

“Even though children don’t necessarily experience severe symptoms, they can potentially develop an inflammatory response that could affect them long term,” Banerjee said.

With rising numbers of COVID-19-positive children, health directors are warning of other potential long-term complications of the disease as well, including permanent lung damage.

Educators across the country are also worried about the risks they’re being asked to take on, with several teachers unions across the country fighting back.

“The risks are immense,” Green said, adding that while teachers and educators are excited to have their students back with them and learning, their lives are literally on the line in doing so.

“We are putting our teachers, who are already underpaid and underappreciated, in the classroom where children may not listen to their mask requirements or wash their hands properly, or even just cover their mouth when they sneeze or cough,” Green said. “This is a very tough time and a difficult decision for educators to go back into the classroom physically.”

We’re still learning about how COVID-19 affects children. But there are fewer questions about the risks teachers face, according to Colbert.

“Teachers and staff are at greater risk due to comorbidities and age,” he explained. “These two factors significantly increase morbidity and mortality attributed to the coronavirus.”

Even acknowledging all these risks, proponents of schools reopening might be quick to point out those same risks exist at Walmart.

But experts say that simply isn’t true.

“In places like Walmart, where people shop for 30 minutes, exposure is much shorter than in a school that children attend for hours daily,” Banerjee explained.

With one teacher responsible for many students over the course of several hours in a single, small room, he says the exposure is also greater for all involved in a classroom setting.

Then there’s the fact that stores like Walmart are in a better position to enforce things like mask-wearing and physical distancing than a kindergarten teacher may be able to do with a room full of 5-year-olds.

Additionally, a large, privately owned corporation may be in a better position to provide personal protective equipment for its employees than school districts, which have been underfunded and have had difficulty providing basic supplies to their classrooms, even before COVID-19 hit.

For some, it may seem like a strong argument to make, pointing to what is already opened and wondering why schools can’t do the same.

But the truth is our schools don’t yet have an adequate safety plan in place. And even when they do, they may not have the funding to implement those plans.

And it would seem a majority of Americans agree.

In fact, only about 1 in 10 Americans think schools should fully reopen, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs.

The push to reopen schools at this time not only appears to be disregarding the current risk level of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the concerns a majority of parents have about the safety of their children and families.