What new research on COVID in schools may mean for onsite learning

What new research on COVID in schools may mean for onsite learning

School boards across Kansas have approved varying school reopening plans during the COVID-19 pandemic based on both local circumstances and state and national recommendations. 

Now, new reports indicate that school reopening in the U.S. and internationally may not have caused the spike in COVID spread some feared, and school do not appear to be driving spread in Kansas.  However, cases have been increasing in Kansas and other states, and students, educators and families continue to be at-risk. 

While circumstances can change and research is ongoing, this evidence suggests school districts have been effective in deciding when to open for in person learning and what steps should be taken to do so safety. Here are some things to think about as school communities respond. 

What does new research mean for school operations in Kansas? 

Remember, whatever your local experience, there was no single Kansas school “reopening.” Some school districts began fall classes just as they would have done in previous years. Many districts delayed opening or opened in a hybrid model (students in school part-time, learning remotely part-time). Some schools are still not back in full-time onsite learning. 

The reason is that state law and the Kansas Legislature provided great local flexibility to counties and school districts in responding to the pandemic. School boards have been making decisions based on local circumstances and health department policies, as well state guidance, as they respond to parents, staff and patrons. 

What has happened to COVID cases in Kansas as schools reopened? 

This a difficult question to answer because, as noted, Kansas schools have been opening at different times and in different formats. COVID cases have risen in Kansas since early August when schools BEGAN to reopen for onsite learning, but it is hard to link cases to school operating format. Quite simply, we often do not know where a person contracted the disease. 

Of 846 case clusters reported on Oct. 21 by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, less than 5 percent (40) were identified as schools. School clusters represented 2.3 percent of all cases in those clusters, less than 1 percent of hospitalizations, and only 1 death out of 508 from those clusters. 

Does this mean fears about COVID spread when school open were exaggerated? 

Not necessarily. First, many districts delayed reopening, and some are still not fully in person. Those that delayed were acting based on assessments of risk in their communities, so some of the largest districts in communities with the greatest risk were among those delayed. It is possible that school-based cases and COVID spread in the state could have been worse. 

Second, it should be stressed that most districts did not simply “reopen” as usual. Using guidance developed by state health experts, school leaders and adopted by the State Board of Education, most schools are following guidelines such as mask wearing, social distancing, sanitizing, testing, contact tracing and quarantining. These steps, sometimes unpopular, may well have kept schools safer for children (and staff) than many other places where these steps are not followed. 

Third, it is still relatively early in the school year. If COVID cases in the community continue to climb during the winter, it may be more difficult to limit the spread in schools, forcing school boards to choose between new restrictions like hybrid or remote learning, or risk many more cases, serious illnesses and deaths. 

Does the research show children and young people are less likely to be seriously ill or die from COVID? 

This continues to be the case, but it is not the full story. While COVID seems to be much less risky for the 500,000 school aged children in Kansas, it is a greater risk for the more than 70,000 school employees – teachers, cooks, bus drivers and other staff – who may be exposed. Children may also carry the disease home to parents and in many cases, grandparents with whom they live. 

When schools are operating onsite, students and families can still opt for online learning if they are concerned about safetySchool staff, including those at higher risk, can only resign or retire unless the district can assign them to work remotely. 

What do these new studies mean for on-site learning? 

School leaders must make painful choices between trying to be as safe as possible, which could be fully remote, and support student learning and other services such as physical and mental health and student activities that can only be provided in person. 

The new information is one more factor school leaders must consider in deciding how they can safely provide educational services, along with other local factors. It may give more confidence that schools can operate without undue risk, but only if other steps dealing with the pandemic are in place. Local boards will need to make those decisions with local input.