Is it safe to open schools? From the moment it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had set up shop in the US, answers to that question have been scrutinized, analyzed, and even politicized. Lost in all of this is the realization that it’s a terrible question—because there’s no single answer to it.
Instead, any answer to that question only applies to individual communities and, in many cases, individual schools. It’s also subject to change with the evolving dynamics of the pandemic, including the appearance of new variants. Fortunately, a detailed understanding of why the question is bad can help people understand which questions they should be asking instead.
Schools are part of a community
A couple things that are relevant to school safety have become clear over the course of the pandemic. One is that school-aged children are the least likely to be hospitalized or die of any age group tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of the over half-million COVID-19 deaths in the US, only a few hundred have been kids under the age of 17. In addition, in a few cases where new infections were tracked in detail, schools that adopted adequate safety measures saw lower infection rates than the surrounding community.
All of this would seem to indicate that opening schools can be relatively low-risk. But that risk is to the students themselves. Other studies have found that closing schools is associated with lower transmission in the community at large. That’s because schools are one part of a larger community. Parents who take their children to school may spend time talking to their fellow parents or be more likely to stop off for a coffee or some shopping on the way to or from the school. That’s also true for the teachers and staff of the schools. Each of these interactions provides a possible opportunity for the virus to spread.
The community’s attitudes and capabilities also matter. An area in which many of the parents are angrily confrontational about being asked to wear masks is going to have a much harder time getting students to comply with safety rules, for example. Many of the other means of keeping students safe—adding teachers, keeping students in pods, allowing distancing, etc.—will depend on the community’s wealth and facilities.
Finally, the spread of the virus within the community is central to determining safety. If there’s a high degree of spread within the community at large, there’s a far greater chance that this will lead to outbreaks in the schools. That’s in part because of the tendency of school-aged children to have asymptomatic cases, meaning they’re more likely to go to school without realizing that they’re infected.
(Testing capacity is essential for understanding both the rate of infections in the community and identifying when outbreaks are happening in schools. For communities without adequate testing capacity, opening schools will be riskier.)
School isn’t just one thing
Beyond the community, each individual school matters. The CDC may break out school-aged children as their own age group, but there are some indications that younger children in this range are less susceptible than older ones. That’s one of the reasons the CDC has different recommendations for separation among older and younger students. Since many school systems have separate buildings for different age groups, there can be a lot of complicated issues regarding whether an appropriate level of separation and ventilation can be maintained in the different facilities.
Finally, there are large expectations, both among students and parents, that school is more than just the classes. For many parents, it also acts as daycare they could not otherwise afford. For many students, it’s a place where they can be certain they’ll get a nutritious meal. Both groups associate school with a large range of additional activities, like sports, music, and theater.
Which of these activities are safe? Is anyone willing to sacrifice all of the ones that are not?
All of these complexities point to why, rather than issuing a yes-or-no decision on safety, the CDC has an extensive school safety checklist. It helps focus parents on making sure they consider all the factors that go into school safety rather than viewing it as a simple yes-or-no question.
Everything is changing
There’s one final reason that it doesn’t make sense to look for simple answers here: the answers are constantly changing. The risk of having schools open, for both students and the community, will go up if the community’s infection rate rises. When the CDC relaunched its school guidance webpages earlier this year, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky emphasized that most of the US simply had community infection levels that were too high to allow schools to open safely. However, she offered hope that the situation would change in the future.
(Obviously, detecting an actual outbreak in a school would require a new risk assessment, as well.)
Finally, the recent detection of a number of new, more infective strains can also change the risk evaluation, as a number have made their way into the US. We’re not certain at this point whether the increased infectivity of these viral variants applies to school-aged children. And there’s at least one strain (B.1.1.7) that seems to also cause increased mortality. Again, if that increased risk applies to school-aged children, then communities where the variants have been detected will want to re-evaluate school safety.
None of this is to say that schools can’t be opened in a way that minimizes the risk to students. But figuring out when that’s the case, and ensuring that things stay safe, has to be done on a community level. And each community may have different definitions of what level of risk constitutes safe.
That’s why we should be paying more attention to people who are talking about how to evaluate risk—and far less to anyone who believes the question has a simple, binary answer.