The headline on new research about schools and COVID-19 says it all: “Schools are not islands”.
The key takeaway from this just-released study comes from the Chief Medical Officer of King County Public Health, Dr. Jeff Duchin. He says the report is “sobering. It is telling us at this time there is too much COVID transmission in our communities to permit school reopening.”
Participating in a statewide briefing on the report, Duchin told reporters we need “a big time reboot of how we’re going forward,” adding: “We moved forward too quickly and too happily.”
He says it is still possible to reopen schools safely, but for everyone in every community “we have to fundamentally rethink the way we live our lives in COVID.”
Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Global Health, conducted the new study. This is the group that has forecast national COVID deaths throughout the pandemic.
The report concludes that taking no precautions and reopening schools could double the COVID rate in communities in just three months.
The research shows that mandating masks for students and staff, as well as mandatory health screening and testing, will drop the rate of infection to levels that will decrease the virus spread. The study also suggests that districts should create smaller groups of students, or cohorts, to slow the disease. That would mean that once assigned to that small group, students would stay with that group for the year; eat lunch in the classroom, take recess only with that group, not switch classes for different subjects — in other words, create a “bubble” around them to reduce contact.
Districts will still have to decide how to limit exposure in middle and high schools, where students change classes. Also problematic is how to cut the risk for students who ride the bus, and for student who have special needs.
Harmony Weinberg, communications manager for the Edmonds School District, has read the report, but offered no comments on its recommendations. Weinberg says district teams and a citizen-staff advisory board is planning for a September opening and may have that wrapped up by the end of next week.
Edmonds plans to reopen in September on a hybrid schedule. It means students would go to class two days a week; the other three days, teaching would be online. It also offers families an option for online learning only.
The IDM study is based on data from King County, but researchers say the data on the virus spread and impact is applicable to communities throughout the state.
Since the study was completed in June, it does not include the latest information about the rise in cases. But senior researcher Dan Klein says new cases reported since then “only further suggest that the current level of disease activity is too high to support (schools) reopening at this time.”
Lacy Fehrenbach, Deputy Secretary of Health for COVID-19, told reporters that “reopening schools cannot be considered in isolation — what happens outside of schools is as important as what happens inside of schools. The most important step we can take to reopen schools this fall is to come together to reduce spread of the virus in our communities and statewide.”
“We must communicate the fact we’re not going in the right direction,” Duchin added. If case numbers continue to rise, Duchin warns: “We will have to consider going backwards in mobility,” adding that the public must get the message to do less in groups, to have less contact.
If communities do have to go back to more restrictions, what happens to the economic recovery? Speaking during the briefing, Markham McIntyre, Executive Vice President of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, warned that while the chamber is focused on recovery “none of that is going to be possible if we cannot reopen schools.”
Duchin says this study “tells us everything we do as individuals, in business, the workplace, pubs and restaurants, in families impacts our ability to move forward in schools.”
— By Bob Throndsen