A little more than three weeks ago, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee temporarily closed schools to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. On Monday, he extended the closure through the end of the school year.
But it’s difficult for the more than 1 million students currently at home to know exactly when they’ll return to learning in classrooms with their peers: figuring out when school should resume requires a tricky calculus.
During Monday’s news conference announcing the extension, Inslee first said schools are expected to reopen in the fall. But later, state schools chief Chris Reykdal stood beside Inslee and hedged; school leaders should prepare for the possibility that closures may bleed into fall, he said.
Policymakers need to consider the scope of the virus’s reach — who’s infected, recovered and immune — but also how well they’re equipped to keep the virus at bay. That’s barring a vaccine, which could take over a year to develop. And schools are in a category of their own: Unlike other public spaces, such as restaurants, bars and parks, people are compelled to enter public school buildings at least every weekday.
In Washington, worrying signs in the past week have shifted to hints of hope. Death forecasts are down from initial estimates. The number of hospitalizations is holding steady. Washington may be one of the first places in the U.S. to have “flattened the curve.”
But these recent analyses come with a caveat: Experts say projections are only reliable if people are faithful to social-distancing rules and keep public gathering places, including schools, closed.
So when will it truly be safe to reopen school?
Though education officials are betting on fall, it’s difficult to predict when it will be safe to resume in-person lessons. “The timeline for measures such as school closures may change over time as new information emerges and we see the path the outbreak takes,” Danielle Koenig, a spokesperson for the state’s Joint Information Center coronavirus response team, said in March. Now that school is closed for the rest of the school year, “decisions will be somewhat less speculative, as Washington rides out the curve into the summer,” another spokesperson said.
When asked about the data points they’re considering, officials in Inslee’s office say they’re monitoring transmission figures and other surveillance data on the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. “Ultimately this, and every other step we’ve taken is based on the rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” said Mike Faulk, spokesperson for the governor’s office.
Epidemiologists are more direct. People will remain at risk until most are immune to the virus either through vaccination or extensive community spread, said Yonatan Grad, assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Without a vaccine, the end of the pandemic here could go like this: aggressive social distancing will help flatten the number of infected at any given time, but to prevent a serious reemergence, widespread testing is needed to detect those who have the virus, and those who are immune. Government officials will need to get serious about tracing who has come into contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the disease, Grad said. Once the virus is under control, he added, officials should attempt to keep infected people elsewhere from bringing the coronavirus back to Washington.
These conditions are generally in line with what would signal it’s safe to reopen schools, experts say. Education officials here tend to agree. “The science says we may not have the vaccine, we may not have the herd immunity [by fall], and no one wants us to spike up again if we suddenly release society from their homes to go to concerts, and football games and school,” Reykdal said.
According to some researchers, schools may turn out to be a special case. As other public spaces gradually open, schools may be among the last places deemed safe to return to normal. Unlike businesses, where people can choose to visit or not, reopening schools would compel people back into close quarters: classrooms, hallways, locker rooms and lunchrooms.
“If I was to design a system of transmitting a virus as quickly as possible, I’d be hard pressed to find” a place that’s more effective than a school, said Aaron Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.
“Not only do we cram [children] in, but every 45 minutes or so we ring a bell and have them move to a whole other group of people where we cram them. And once a day we stick them all in one huge room where we make them eat almost on top of each other.”
That’s a potent recipe for transmission, he said.
But schools are particularly risky only if children are actually transmitting the coronavirus. It’s unclear whether they are powerful transmitters, as they are of other conditions like influenza. Children are mostly spared the coronavirus’s worst effects, but early research suggests they’re just as likely as adults to get infected. If children transmit it asymptomatically, reopening schools too early, or all at once, could be disastrous.
If studies show children aren’t important transmitters, shutting schools likely did little to curb the virus’ spread in the first place. Prolonging their closure wouldn’t make sense, Grad said. “In that case, it would be reasonable to have kids go back to school.”
Research may soon answer these questions. Ultimately, Reykdal said, deciding to start school will mostly be up to “science and the governor.”
But public opinion should also play a role, he said. Before schools were officially required to shut down, absentee rates among children and staff skyrocketed — a sign that families and staff were nervous. If school reopens, Reykdal said, he’d want to be sure students and staff feel safe. “We are not going to formally collect that yet,” he said of public opinion, and noted that his office’s attempts to gauge people’s perception will likely be informal.
A late March Seattle Times survey of Education Lab readers offers some insight: 21% of respondents said they felt safe returning their child to school if buildings were to reopen on April 27 — the date officials initially set to resume in-person learning. More than 52% said they “strongly disagreed” with that notion. A majority of the roughly 400 respondents said they are parents.
Some experts are urging policymakers to tread lightly when interpreting public perception.
“A lot of decision-making processes, but [deciding to open school] in particular, has the danger of being driven by a small number of very loud and privileged voices,” said Ann Ishimaru, associate professor of educational policy, organizations and leadership at the University of Washington. Vulnerable families are less likely to be heard, she said, since government officials don’t have a mechanism to seek their opinions.
Some say they feel that reopening school is not a decision “ordinary people” will get a say in. “In a crisis you don’t go and ask everybody for their opinion,” said Erin Okuno, who has two elementary-age children and is executive director of Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. This is a time for leadership to step in, so long as their decisions “come with well-reasoned, transparent information,” Okuno said.
Uncertainty about the future keeps 17-year-old Linda Yan up at night. Yan, a junior at Bellevue High School who hopes to become an engineer, said she often finds herself going down what her teachers call a “Wikipedia hole” before bed: she regularly checks a set of four or five COVID-19 projection models, including one created by UW researchers, and the news.
“I want to be optimistic and say most likely we would be back” in the fall, she said. “But I honestly don’t know. Just like everyone else.”
Seattle Times researcher April Armstrong contributed to this report.