Missouri can do more to safely keep schools open during COVID surge

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When Gov. Mike Parson announced changes to COVID-19 quarantine guidelines for Missouri schools, he argued, “transmission within our schools appears to be low.”

Given the rising numbers of new cases and the potential consequences of school closures for Missouri families, we appreciate how apprehensive many families may be. The science we have so far suggests transmission in schools is more limited than in other settings, and closing schools has many consequences for children.

However, we also do not believe that we are currently doing everything necessary to operate schools safely while maintaining low risk of virus transmission.

Our belief that transmission in schools is less likely is based on research and reporting from various countries, including several studies from Germany, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. Children under ten do not appear to transmit this virus readily, and are also less likely to develop severe symptoms than adults and potentially older children if they get infected. In Taiwan, schools have remained open as part of the country’s successful efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. This evidence does not mean that students cannot infect others or become ill themselves.

However, the data we have to date suggests that children are far more likely to be infected by adults at home than they are to spread COVID-19 in educational settings. This evidence, like all science, is imperfect. We do not fully understand why rates remain low, and children do not get sicker. Some research has been undertaken by necessity when schools were closed. We also routinely fail to differentiate between older and younger children in both research and policy discussions.

Because transmission rates are lower among children, we are unsure how significant school closures are in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies of influenza and the 2003 SARS outbreak suggest school closures may have a minimal or modest effect on transmission. Transmission is also dependent on the degree of spread and interactions in the broader community. Therefore, closing schools may have few meaningful impacts on community transmission.

While there is uncertainty around school closures slowing transmission, school closures have clear negative consequences for families and students. Compared to last fall, when schools were open, there are 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force, driven by childcare needs and higher job losses. Closures have disproportionately impacted students of color and students living in poverty, resulted in fewer students identified as homeless, and highlighted the limited access to needed resources and learning for English language learners and others.

Additionally, students who rely on schools for meals cannot get them, as Missouri schools served nearly 20 million fewer meals during the Spring shutdown. Early estimates also show that the shutdown and subsequent learning disruptions have led to students losing roughly half a year of academic learning in math. These losses can have far-reaching effects, including losses in future earnings.

If we want to avoid these consequences, we can utilize several tools to keep schools open. Regular hand washing, with oversight from teachers for the youngest students, can limit the spread of COVID. Other techniques, including using hand sanitizer, de-densifying classroom spaces, cohorting students, regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and using high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filtering, can also play a role in reducing transmission.

Beyond these steps, we have a growing body of evidence supporting the conclusion that face coverings also reduce the spread of COVID. Their effectiveness, however, varies substantially based on the type of material used. Neck gaiters and bandanas, for example, may be particularly ineffective.

For that reason, schools need to require students to use masks that conform to CDC guidance. We also need to recognize that masks are not a cure-all but rather one tool that supports others.

While we can take steps to keep schools open, implementation in Missouri has been uneven, even as states like Michigan, Illinois, and Kansas require masks in schools.

Summer guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary education (DESE) recommended districts require staff to wear masks, especially when near others. They advised masks for older students when they could not socially distance, but not for young children due to potential compliance issues like mask trading.

In November, DESE again stopped short of mask mandates. Instead, they recommended districts require staff and students to wear masks and added opportunities to opt-out for medical exemptions. So, while DESE has consistently communicated the importance of masks, they have left final decisions to individual districts and charters in the interest of local control.

In our review of reopening plans, we have seen substantial variation in mask policies across Missouri.

Some districts referenced specific times when masks are required, such as during class transitions or on buses. Other districts recommended or encouraged mask use but did not require it, letting students and staff decide for themselves. One district indicated they would allow teachers to decide on mask requirements for their students’ classroom(s). This variation occurred despite only 25 percent of Missouri students receiving fully remote instruction at the start of the school year.

Given this uneven implementation of evidence-based precautions, we need statewide leadership that prioritizes education and creates a framework local jurisdictions must use to implement or loosen restrictions. We need to take the pressure off schools to figure out which policies they will follow. We also need quarantine policies that follow CDC guidelines and best practices. We need school districts to require masks and take other steps to reduce transmissions.

Finally, we need to reorient our priorities, especially once we see high transmission rates subside. We should be ensuring schools are open before high-transmission venues like bars, clubs, gyms and restaurants.

We also need to make sure that, when kids are home at night or on weekends, they are in spaces where they are least likely to bring COVID-19 with them back to school the next day. This means that mask-wearing, physical distancing, reducing contacts, disinfection of surfaces and hand hygiene are not just for schools. Students and family members must be committed to following these at home.