The state Education Department announced Wednesday that it is forming a task force of educational leaders to examine how to begin reopening public schools. However, some experts are cautioning that it’s still not safe for students or faculty.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen many examples of how schools across the state serve as the cornerstone of our communities, which is why it is imperative that they are included in any reopening strategy,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and Interim Commissioner of Education Shannon Tahoe in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Department of Health and sharing recommendations with Governor Cuomo’s New York Forward Re-Opening Advisory Board.”
As New York’s COVID-19 case numbers continue to slow and level off, and officials discuss the prospect of reopening the economy in some regions soon, many have wondered what that means for schools. Some parents depend on schools and after-school programs for childcare, and would have difficulty returning to work without a safe place for their kids. Many low-income and homeless families rely on the meals and health care that schools provide their children.
At a White House press conference Monday, President Trump urged governors to consider opening up their school systems before the academic year ends, adding that “In terms of what this vicious virus goes after, young people seem to do very well.”
While children do exhibit lower infection and mortality rates, this does not include children with conditions such as asthma who are at a higher risk. At school, students could also contract and spread the virus to faculty, staff and families.
On April 22, Gov. Cuomo said that reopening schools before the end of the academic year with social distancing protocols in place would be a “very, very big undertaking.” However, he would also not commit to keeping the schools closed, because it would mean businesses could not reopen either, due to childcare concerns.
According to experts, like Cornell University’s Lee Adler, schools opened too hastily will become “dangerous breeding grounds” for the virus. He said not only would this threaten public health, but it would create unsafe working conditions for teachers, and that unions will not allow their members to return under such circumstances.
“It is only by massive testing – something that has happened nearly nowhere in the U.S. – that we can be relatively sure that it is OK to open the schools,” said Adler, an expert on education and academic union issues at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Adler also pointed out that recent antibody testing found that many more people contracted the virus than originally thought because they were asymptomatic. With scientists still uncertain whether or not these people can re-contract the virus and spread it unknowingly, Adler insists that the risk is too high.
“There could be five adults in a faculty of 40, or 20 adults in a faculty of 100, who are carriers of some sort that may pass the virus to the children or to their colleagues to take home,” Adler explained. “Given the utter seriousness of the illness, why in the world should our society take that risk, even with masks and social distancing?”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is drafting guidelines for how to safely reopen the economy, including schools. Social distancing measures would require desks to be spaced six feet apart, and for students to eat at their desks instead of gathering in the cafeteria. The guidelines also suggest a phased reopening in places with “low levels of COVID-19 spread and those with confidence that the incidence of infection is genuinely low.”
For local leaders to be confident that their infection rate is low, testing would need to increase significantly.
“Although upstate New York would not be as dangerous as New York City, the testing has not been done there either, and until that occurs to the satisfaction of union leaders, the schools in each district need to remain closed as a matter of critical public policy,” said Adler.
While the CDC can suggest safe practices, it is up to state governments to decide how and when to open schools. Many states have said they will not return before summer break, and some are even preparing for remote learning to continue into the fall semester.