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How can the US "pull a Denmark" in school reopening?

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

With current attention paid to scorching temperatures and crowded beaches, it is easy to forget that final decisions need to be made over the next two weeks on reopening most American schools.

Reopening schools is so important to so many aspects of society.  Children need the in-person education for maximal learning, development, and socialization while adults need to recalibrate their workplace flexibility for their own careers and well-being.   Additionally, the psychological boost from reopening society goes a long way in creating optimism for normalcy.   

However, the whole process has a tightrope effect.  Failure in reopening schools is just as damaging to society as a successful reopening is valuable. 

The US can take some guidance from foreign experience.  In Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and most other countries, school openings were a success.   

The Denmark model was especially interesting and enlightening as this country successfully opened its schools on April 15 of this year.  In Denmark’s system of microbubbles for kids 2-12 years of age, the educators kept class sizes small and minimized social interaction between groups.  For this Scandinavian country, the system worked well and the Covid-19 infection rate stayed low.  Importantly, this country already had a very low rate of Covid-19 at the time of these reopenings.

Israel’s reopening had a much more problematic result. In Israel, there were much second-guessing after its school reopening as many questioned whether the right steps were met when a new wave of infections swept the country after its reopening.  This country tried a “bubble” system as well but had many problems with reopening including a heat wave that spurred lifting mandatory masks in the schools.  While the exact causes have been debated, thousands of positive Covid-19 cases in the community resulted after Israel's reopening and their top public health official had to resign in disgrace.

While many lessons can be learned from the school reopening experience of the international community, perhaps the most important one is that the community Covid-19 rate needs to be low for success.  The key feature of any successful reopening will be preparation on the part of the school districts.  Equally valuable will be the ability of school districts to anticipate future scenarios ahead of time to minimize a negative impact.  An important question is what to do for a positive case in the schools for a child or parent.  The spectrum ranges from complete school closure to “bubble” closure, to individual quarantine (maybe with that child’s siblings).  Each school will need a plan and a solution for questions like these.

Smart American school districts will be creating plans now for these scenarios.  These districts will research and determine how to manage the classrooms to minimize Covid-19 transmission.  They will need to know the important safety measures have been described for helping the classrooms stay safe such as “handwashing breaks”, reconfigured schooldays, and plexiglass where needed.  They will also need to understand how to monitor all individuals for possible symptoms and how to quarantine these individuals.  They will need to educate everyone on the signs of Covid-19 and the potential differences in children, including the Kawasaki-like syndrome.  They will have to understand which children may be contagious  and which children may or may not be at higher risk for Covid-19.  They will have to understand which teachers may be vulnerable and how they can participate in the education while staying safe.  They will need a plan on surveillance and symptom-based testing indications in advance that will parallel their community infection rates and their resources.

Sadly, some school districts will not even attempt good-faith efforts at genuinely trying to reopen.  They may find the potential issues too daunting for them to handle.  Other schools may not even try to reopen due to union concerns or parental fears.  All these concerns are complex and may be short-sighted.  Failure to reopen may result in permanent school closings or loss of funding, both of which will hurt the livelihood of educators, students, and the community in the long-term.  

Parental fears need to be properly defined and actual risk of contagiousness and Covid-19 transmission needs to be appreciated.  However, when doing any risk assessment on this topic, the risk of educational loss should also be calculated as on-line schooling is not even close to in-person education in the overwhelming majority of cases (the only exceptions involving extremely engaged or resource-laden parents or incredibly self-motivated pupils).

So now is crunch time for the schools to decide if they can realistically reopen or whether they will have home-based learning.  As with most things in American society, money, resources, fear of litigation, fear of criticism, and emotion will probably play as major a role as anything else in the school reopening discussion including (greatest societal good).  Importantly, while many districts are discussing plans for the fall only, a failure to reopen in the fall may mean spring closures as well as a fall flu season and no mass vaccine by December will only embolden those who do not want to reopen schools for the spring semester.  Hopefully, communities will make the proper decisions on this issue as investments in children represent the most important investments most societies will ever make.



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