Federal hearing explores pros and cons of schools reopening

Balancing the benefits of in-person instruction with the health and safety of students, teachers and staff was the focus of the Aug. 6 Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Remote Hearing, “Challenges to Safely Reopening K-12 Schools.” Hearing speakers were split down party lines on whether they think schools should reopen, though the majority agreed that decisions must be based on the rate of virus spread in the community.

Chairman James E. Clyburn (D–SC) opened the hearing with a fiery speech on the federal government’s failure to respond appropriately to the virus. “Our schools face life or death decisions because of the Administration’s inexcusable failure to get the virus under control for the last six months,” he said. “Rather than threaten to withhold funding from schools, we should make sure every school has the resources it needs to safely educate students during the pandemic, whether that is remote or in person. The next coronavirus relief package must provide sufficient funding to meet these needs.”

Ranking member Steve Scalise (R–LA) focused his opening statement on the dire need for children to return to in-person instruction, citing mental health, social-emotional needs and a sharp decline in child abuse reports. “Our children need us to recognize these challenges and how to overcome them,” Scalise said. “When children aren’t in schools, there are devastating things happening to them. I understand we want make sure it is a safe environment, but we can’t use that as an excuse — we have to figure out how to do it.”

Several witnesses referred to a recently published report on a severe outbreak of COVID-19 at a Georgia summer camp as an example of what could happen at schools that choose to reopen in areas where the community spread of the virus is high. Nearly 600 young campers and counselors attended the camp in late June, and were required to get a negative COVID test before they arrived. By mid-July, COVID-19 test results were available for 344 individuals from the camp; 76 percent of those tested positive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated in its report on the summer camp that “this investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Caitlin Rivers, epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said no one was at the hearing to dispute the value of in-person schooling, but while children are less likely to die, that doesn’t mean that they do not. “Above all, the most important factor in determining whether schools can safely reopen is the prevalence of the disease in the community,” she said.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agreed that community spread is the most important indicator in the decision to reopen schools. “Unfortunately our schools are not islands — our schools reflect our communities, and as we’ve seen across the country in schools that have tried to open in the last week or two, there have been cases of the coronavirus literally on the first day they opened.”

Duncan emphasized that the worst thing would be to open schools and have to shortly shut them down again. “If we can’t test accurately and quickly, if we can’t contact trace, if we can’t quarantine — we cannot open schools.” Duncan, along with the other witnesses, called for more federal funding, with Duncan specifically asking for the next relief package to include $200 billion for education, which should include $50 billion for child care and $7 billion for E-rate funding.

Witness Dan Lips from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity said that while the risk to any lives should weigh heavily in decision-making, it is also critical that policymakers consider the serious risks associated with prolonged school closures, particularly for disadvantaged children. “The bottom line is that prolonged school closures will create a large achievement gap for a generation of American children. Beyond these educational effects, prolonged school closures bring significant risks for children’s health and welfare.”

Epidemiologist Rivers said reopening schools for in-person instruction is probably the most complex decision we are faced with in the pandemic, and that it should be left up to the community and based on virus spread. Driving home the extreme difficulties of these life or death decisions was Arizona teacher Angela Skillings.

Skillings was recently in the news as one of a trio of teachers who were co-teaching summer school in a shared room who all contracted COVID-19 — one of the teachers died from the virus. She described how she was the first person in their small, rural community to test positive for the virus. As of last week, four more support staff tested positive, resulting in slightly more than 11 percent of the school staff infected. In her testimony, she expressed concern for the mental and social-emotional health of students without in-person schooling, but also wondered how the death of their teacher would affect them. “We can recover a child’s lost education, but we cannot recover a life,” Skillings said in closing out her testimony.