How Are K-12 Schools Doing this Fall?

October 2020
Topics: Public Health, Disease Outbreaks, Social Behavior, Emergency Management, Epidemiology
As the 2020-21 school year opened, communities had to make tough choices about whether to send students back to the classroom, provide virtual learning, or create a hybrid of the two. So how are the K-12 schools doing so far?
School kid in a mask at his desk.

To help educators and community leaders evaluate back to school approaches, the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition published “Planning for On-Campus K-12 Education During COVID-19,” a report and guidelines to help schools reopen successfully for virtual and/or on-campus learning. A team of authors summarized the best guiding principles and lessons learned available in August, providing criteria that school districts could use to make decisions.

Are schools following the guidelines? Are their plans working out? We revisit the topic with two of the main authors of the report, MITRE’s Dr. Kunal Rambhia and Dr. Rakhee Palekar. And watch their videos for more guidance. 


What’s happened in the K-12 schools since they opened around the country?  Are they following recommendations?

Rambhia: It’s too early to tell how plans are working since many schools only opened four to six weeks ago. We haven’t seen enough data yet on how many cases there are among students, and if they’re spreading it to their communities.

What we are seeing is that each school district has created a customized plan to meet its community’s needs, which is what we recommended. All the different approaches mentioned in the report are being practiced somewhere—from all-virtual to hybrid [two-three days in school] to in-school classes five days a week.

Palekar: Even within one district or school, you’ll see a mix of practices. For example, I have one child in school full time and one child who goes in two days a week. I’m comfortable with that because the school is following all the guidelines in our report—and from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)—and parents and students are following the rules.

Are any best practices emerging from schools around the country?

Rambhia:  I’m encouraged by the range of flexibility and creativity we’re seeing. Schools are thinking outside the box—which we need in this unprecedented environment. We’re all still learning. Some things will work, and some won’t. Schools need to document what they’re learning in real time.

Palekar: The best chance of success comes from following a strategy with many layers of protection. Layers include wearing masks, practicing good and consistent hygiene, social distancing, and providing plexiglass barriers where appropriate. It could also include providing laptops, taking temperatures, increasing airflow or cleaning routines—as well as testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation.

Some schools are bringing a portion of students into the classroom. According to your report, which students most need to be in school?

Palekar:  In general, younger students and those with special needs do better in person—that is, in a physical classroom where they can interact with a teacher. But everyone’s situation is unique, and there are many factors to consider.

Rambhia: Exactly. We’ve also seen the importance of a student’s home environment. Is it conducive to learning? Do they have an internet connection and the tools they need for virtual learning? Is the family supporting their educational needs? Do they have a quiet space in which to learn?

A school should look at all these things when determining who most needs to be in the classroom.

How do schools decide when they can bring more students back to school?

Rambhia: We haven’t yet seen a set of clear metrics that schools can rely on to make this decision. Case counts in the community are a critical factor. But these decisions must be made by the stakeholders within a community, including public health officials.

Palekar: There’s no easy answer, no formula to follow. Many schools have done well this fall, but the winter will introduce new challenges. In the north, schools that have been holding classes outdoors will need to bring students inside, which introduces more risk. Also, flu season is coming, and we’ll need to protect students and staff from two viruses at one time.

What I said earlier still holds. If schools follow multi-pronged strategies that include layers of protection, they have the best chance to keep everyone healthy and safe.

And we recommend that schools bring students back in stages, testing their practices as they go and adapting as necessary.

Is testing for students and staff part of a well-rounded strategy? Should schools close if they see just a few positive cases?

Rambhia: Some schools have added testing to their plans, but it can be expensive and hard to conduct in large schools. That said, the federal government is planning to send out 150 million rapid diagnostic tests to K-12 schools.

Schools must plan ahead who they will test—what percentage of the population—and how often. A test tells you the situation for that point in time. You can test negative one day, and test positive the next, so frequent testing might be necessary if the goal is to catch all the positive cases.

Palekar: Testing alone will not protect a school, but it can help them manage the situation. Let’s say there are five cases in a school, but all the students who tested positive are in the same classroom or same cohort. That group of people can be quarantined, which makes it easier to contain the outbreak without shutting down the whole school.

Many schools have created “bubbles” for just this purpose. This could mean keeping a group of students and teachers together in one classroom all the time or bringing in the same group on the same day each week. These bubbles or cohorts make it easier to maintain separation and limit exposure—and to trace an infected person’s contacts.

Looking back at your paper, would you change any of your original recommendations?

Rambhia: We were very conservative, particularly in one recommendation—that students should not go back to the classroom unless community spread is controlled, as indicated by less than one new case per day per 100,000 people. That was a best practice we found in other countries that successfully opened their schools before the U.S. did.  

However, no one in this country wanted to wait until the numbers were that low, and one reviewer described this recommendation as “draconian.”

Overall, though, we received very positive feedback, and our recommendations still stand.

Palekar:  We developed the paper because we saw local leaders struggling with information overload. Many communities needed help analyzing data and making decisions. Our team looked at a wide range of recommendations and applied our expertise in topics such as epidemiology, disease transmission, supply chains, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We summarized our results in a digestible format and asked members of the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition to review the report and give feedback. Our only objective was to provide data-driven advice and keep schools and communities safe.

The report is full of useful information for school district decision makers as well as parents, who are key stakeholders in the back-to-school community.

What does the future look like for K-12 schools?

Rambhia: I expect we’ll see ups and downs over the next six months. Schools will need to be flexible and adapt as the situation changes. But we’ll get smarter about what works as we try different approaches.

And I believe that spring 2021 will look very different from spring 2020.

Palekar: I’m optimistic—if communities come together to support their schools and follow the guidelines. And, again, the best chance of success comes from following a strategy with many layers of protection!

—interviews conducted by Beverly Wood

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