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The Science Behind School Reopening Plans May Not Work In Practice

School buses
Yehyun Kim


More than a dozen schools in Connecticut have gone remote in recent days as COVID-19 outbreaks flared up. Public health officials and school administrators spent the summer trying to craft plans that would avoid shutdowns and keep students in school as long as possible. Other schools seem set on staying open even if their plans don’t end up working out. 

Dr. Beth Thielen, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, explains that those plans represent an educated guess at best. 

“We don’t really know exactly what levels of community transmission are going to do in the community,” said Thielen, who studies and practices care for infectious disease in children.  

The metrics she’s referring to are levels set by the Connecticut Department of Education. 

Over the summer, the department required districts to develop three models of learning: in-person, hybrid and fully remote. Districts reexamine which model to use on a given day based on weekly updates on the number of infections in a county.

Though the country and state may be used to the pandemic after six months, even the best public health data only goes so far, Thielen said. 

“This is the first time we’ve experienced COVID,” Thielen said, “and we make measurements of what it's going to behave like, but ultimately we need to collect the data in real time.”

To that end, Thielen suspects more students might head back to remote learning soon.

Many schools started this month under a hybrid model, which they consider temporary as they hope to fully return students to the classroom soon, said Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“The majority of schools want to bring in as many students as they possibly can,” Rabinowitz said. “They started with hybrid, they wanted to look at trend data and see community permeation of COVID-19. If the permeation is low, they are definitely gonna open in full.”   

Rabinowitz said many districts have set their sights on Oct. 1 or Nov. 1 to have as many students in the classroom as possible.

But that idea is based on the assumption that the hybrid model proves effective. And that’s where the reminder comes in: This is the first time public health officials have experienced COVID-19. Thielen says the plans only theoretically reduce risk, and numbers of how much risk is acceptable are relatively arbitrary. 

“They’re guidelines to help people implement school reopenings and give them benchmarks to go off of,” Thielen said, “but I think there’s a very real possibility we need to change course when we see how those numbers behave in the real world.” 

Thielen is less worried about young kids getting sick and more concerned about how they might spread the virus to family members and the community. Data and her experience show that only a small amount of infected children become severely ill.

As for the schools, Rabinowitz said the need to change course may not be second nature to teachers, but public health officials have had a lesson or two for her this past summer. 

“I’ve learned not to fall in love with a plan as the plan is and to know that I may have to change that plan at any given moment,” Rabinowitz said.

As of Friday, more than a dozen schools in the state had gone fully remote. How long that distance learning will last is, of course, another part of this experiment. 

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali covers the Naugatuck River Valley for Connecticut Public Radio. Email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.

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