It’s been almost a year since Massachusetts public schools closed their doors to prevent community spread of COVID-19. Recently, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced plans to “take remote and hybrid learning models off the table” by April. It’s about time.
For months, we have known that the risks of harm to students from school closures far outweigh the risks from COVID-19. It was clear last summer not only that students are at low risk from COVID-19, but that transmission from students to staff is rare, particularly when risk mitigation protocols are in place. And yet, today, more than 20% of Massachusetts school districts serving approximately 400,000 students, remain fully remote. Many others receive more than half of their instruction online.
It is common knowledge that remote schooling works only for a small subset of high-achieving, self-motivated learners. For students with learning disabilities and students who lack adequate access to technology or adult supervision during the work day, it is a total failure. And remote learning—even when accompanied by partial in-person instruction—exacerbates educational disparities, disproportionately setting back students from poor and at-risk communities.
There are also serious physical, social, and emotional harms associated with less time in school. From missed meals to social isolation, students are hurting. Even students who attend school a few days a week report increased loneliness and depression, as social opportunities remain limited.
The damage to our students compounds with each passing day. Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that sending kids to school full time is safer than keeping them out, as most schools have far lower rates of the virus than their surrounding communities.
But what about the risk to the community from students interacting in person with teachers and peers? Data compiled by top CDC researchers show that public school classrooms do not contribute in any meaningful way to community spread of the virus. To the contrary, instances of COVID-19 in schools are almost always caused by contact outside the school.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, more than 60 Massachusetts infectious disease physicians, including Dr. Cody Meissner, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Tufts Children’s Hospital and a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, recently signed a letter to Commissioner Riley urging a full return to school this spring.
There are many dedicated teachers who support an immediate full return to school for families that choose this option. So, what’s the hold up? The unions, and in some cases, the superintendents who fear them.
No sooner did Riley announce his goal of full in-person learning by April the Massachusetts Teachers Union called an emergency meeting to “fight back.” And superintendents, many of whom promised teachers there would be no full-time return to school this year, are stalling.
In Springfield, 26,000 students have not set foot in a classroom in almost a year. Yet, Superintendent Dan Warwick says he will seek a waiver from any state mandate that students return to the classroom full-time. Warwick says he can’t return all the kids to school and maintain six-feet of separation in classrooms.
But we now know that the six-foot distancing recommendation has no measurable impact on school safety. Indeed data from the Mayo Clinic and a large data analysis published in the Lancet show no measurable difference in risk between 3-feet and 6-feet of distancing. Likewise, a study of 17 Wisconsin schools that required masks indoors and 3-foot distancing revealed few cases of transmission to students and no cases of transmission to educators within the buildings.
Why is this important? Because it is now clear that the six-foot distancing policy is scientifically unnecessary. And Riley should not allow this standard to be used as an excuse to prevent full-time in-person learning.
Nor should Riley capitulate to demands that schools not open until all teachers and students have been vaccinated. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President Biden’s newly appointed CDC director, was crystal clear that “schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.” It’s high time we listen to experts. It’s time for all students to get back to school.
Jennifer C. Braceras, a Massachusetts parent, is director of Independent Women’s Law Center.