While most schools will begin online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent UC Berkeley-led study found that it may be possible to reopen some Bay Area schools this fall.
The study, published Aug. 7, examined the effects of school closures using surveys and models to predict the potential impacts of schools reopening in the fall. While middle and high schools would pose too dangerous a risk, the study found that it may be possible to reopen elementary schools provided they enforce social distancing measures.
“Obviously, right now the decision of whether and how to open schools is rightly very controversial,” said lead study author Jennifer Head.
The study estimated that more than 13,000 additional reported COVID-19 cases and 650 deaths across the Bay Area were averted as a result of school closures in early March.
The majority of these cases would have likely been spread through middle and high schools, according to Head, as these schools are larger and experience more interaction among different students compared to elementary schools.
“Keeping schools closed puts a tremendous strain on parents, sets children back in their learning and development, and, for underprivileged children, can have associated health risks,” said study co-author Philip Collender in an email. “On the other hand, having many people together for long periods of time in a crowded room creates a major risk of transmission of infectious diseases.”
Teachers particularly are at a higher risk for COVID-19 due to their age, as early research has shown lower susceptibility for the disease among children, according to Head.
The study’s model predicts that opening Bay Area high schools at the current level of community transmission could result in an additional 44% of teachers being infected. This level is similar to what has been seen in other countries afflicted with COVID-19, and Head said this estimate is a “warning sign” for what could happen if the issue of reopening schools is not taken seriously.
“Even though younger children in general have better outcomes with the illness than adults, teachers and staff may be at high risk, and infected children can bring the virus home and seed outbreaks in the community,” Collender said in the email.
The study’s survey of Bay Area families with school-age children also found that while most families have been able to shelter in place, Latinx and low-income households, as well as families with working parents, reported more difficulties.
According to Head, under-resourced schools will likely need additional funding in order to enact social distancing measures should they reopen.
“We hope that these findings might motivate decisions to really make an effort and lower community transmission,” Head said. “This might be seen by perhaps not opening nonessential services for adults and instead choosing to prioritize opening schools.”