In the classroom

Dr. Joseph Allen believes keeping students out of school is a “national emergency.” This photo of Waunakee High School students talking to middle schoolers about their career aspirations was taken in November 2019.

A Harvard professor favors reopening schools throughout the country.

In fact, Dr. Joseph Allen, an assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health of exposure and assessment science, believes it is a “national emergency” that kids are being kept from in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is the challenge of our time,” said Allen, who co-authored the book “The Path to Zero and Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces.” “It’s a 100-year event, and there are no easy answers.”

Allen gave a Zoom talk Wednesday, Dec. 2, to area school administrators, medical professionals and school board members on why opening schools for in-person instruction is necessary and not as risky as some think.

‘Sticky conversation’ and the costs of not reopening schools

Allen said he understood the anxiety of teachers and parents and acknowledged that it is a “sticky conversation” to talk about. He realizes there are people on both sides of the issue who want the same things, who want to see kids back at school and to keep them safe and healthy.

“It’s messy,” Allen admitted.

Allen is an expert on science-based school opening metrics for K-12 students, with coronavirus mitigation ideas for protecting teachers and students inside schools.

According to Allen, while much of the debate has focused on the welfare of kids are in school, there hasn’t been talk about what children face when not in school.

Allen said the data researchers are seeing is alarming. Back in June, writings about “virtual dropouts” indicated there were 10,000 such cases in Boston alone, according to Allen. He also said there are as many as 240,000 students missing from school systems.

Furthermore, Allen talked about other related problems, such as food insecurity for students from lower-income families. He said there have been 1 billion meals missed since the pandemic shut down schools. Lower physical activity among students who aren’t in school is also a concern, as is decreased literacy and lower kindergarten enrollment. He also wondered about attendance in the virtual learning environment and how good an education kids are receiving in the online model.

Allen suggested that the costs of not reopening schools are just beginning to become apparent.

Allen also said that according to data, especially from Europe, schools “are not hotbeds of transmission.” What’s “unfathomable” and “unconscionable” for Allen is the idea that some kids have not been in school for an entire year due to COVID-19.

At the same time, while schools are subject to strict metrics for opening back up, Allen wonders why the same doesn’t hold true for the rest of the economy, including restaurants and bars. He believes school closures have actually increased the risk of coronavirus spread in communities.

Allen believes there is a false assumption that kids who aren’t physically in school are at home in lockdown. They have wider social networks than people realize, he said, which leads to increased contacts throughout the community and beyond. Schools, on the other hand, have controlled environments and can reduce the amount of contacts, inside the school or outside of it, for students.

Risk assessment

Allen said that while the goal is no COVID-19 cases in schools, he also noted that is unrealistic.

When asked if he could provide assurances to teachers that they won’t get the virus if schools reopen, Allen said he wouldn’t be able to do that.

However, there are evidence-based ways of reducing risk. The most important factors, according to Allen, are wearing masks, instituting basic handwashing routines, and having strong air ventilation and filtration systems – ones that can make four to six air changes per hour.

While cleaning contaminated surfaces has been advised as a means of protecting against the coronavirus, Allen said that overcleaning is going on in some buildings. Allen thinks simple handwashing and hand sanitizing practices are more important, especially going in and out of different rooms.

Allen also noted that outbreaks have been connected to such gatherings as spin classes, hockey games and even choir practices. The biggest factors: no mask wearing and low to no ventilation, according to Allen.

Kids are also less likely to contract the coronavirus, said Allen. And if they do, he said they rarely suffer the most serious effects of the illness and are less likely to transmit the disease.

Some school districts have adopted hybrid learning models, which combine some in-person and some virtual learning. The DeForest Area School District implemented the hybrid approach for students in grades K-2 starting in October. Allen thinks that has created a lot of logistical problems for schools without limiting exposure.

The vast majority of scientists Allen has worked with favor bringing kids back to school, with some believing that going slow in doing so is the right way, he said. That opinion is not shared by all scientists, he noted. Some collectively wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post that argued for closing schools while the pandemic rages on.

Allen related how schools in his home state of Massachusetts did not get kids back in school this fall when the weather was nice. He believes that was a big mistake.

One of the reasons school districts have been reluctant to reopen, according to Allen, is they believe their facilities do not have the space to accommodate the 6-foot social distancing guidelines imposed on them. Allen said the science supporting the 6-foot social distancing requirements is weak and argued that 3 feet would be adequate for kids in schools.

“There’s nothing magic about 6 feet,” said Allen, who said studies have shown there is no benefit to keeping 6 feet apart, as opposed to 3 feet.

Allen said the No. 1 deterrent is wearing masks. The right kind of mask, those with three layers of protection, can be 90 percent effective, said Allen.

When asked about protections for teachers, Allen said universal mask wearing was one way of reducing risk. Staying 6 feet away from kids is another, because adults are more susceptible to the disease. Also, Allen advocates not holding in-person adult meetings.

Regarding sports, Allen advises schools to hold intramural athletics within schools. Without them, Allen said kids and parents are going with other avenues of participation, including club sports, where controls protecting against coronavirus are not as strictly regulated.


Allen said he’s frustrated seeing some states reopen their economies, while keeping schools closed.

When cases were rising in the country early on, Allen said he was raising alarm bells as early as last winter and spring and was on the side of strategic closings to stop the spread. He’s also said it is “shocking” that there’s been no federal government response to the crisis.

Still, Allen said schools are a “special case,” especially considering “the dire circumstances kids find themselves in.”

Allen did field some questions from the audience near the end of the presentation. One was about equity. Allen acknowledged that school facilities in poorer communities may be older and might not have the ventilation and air filtration systems necessary to combat COVID-19. He said he understood the reluctance of those in communities of color to send their kids to such institutions for in-person learning.

Allen thinks such facilities can protect students even without massive overhauls. Portable air cleaners are one solution.

A more efficient answer might be rapid antigen testing for the virus. Allen said they’ve been available and it’s been known they work since July. He feels the pandemic can be controlled within weeks if that testing would implemented everywhere.

“It’s quite unbelievable that we don’t have it yet,” said Allen.

DeForest Area School District Superintendent Eric Runez talked about wrestling with high school and middle school schedules if all students return to school and asked Allen what considerations should be taken into account to accommodate them.

Allen said there aren’t any great solutions, other than distancing, wearing masks and having the proper ventilation and air filtration systems in place. Allen said some companies have tried one-way migrations through buildings, but he said that often creates bottlenecks and wouldn’t advise it to schools.

Runez also asked about cohorting in regard to contact tracing, the process of identifying those who’ve come into contact with someone who has coronavirus. Allen said it’s a good idea if there is one case or two in a school as means of managing the situation, as opposed to closing down a school.

In the chat section on the Zoom call, Waunakee Area School District Director of Instruction Tim Schell noted that cohorting doesn’t account for what happens outside of school for kids and wondered if there were models that could keep track of student contact inside and outside of schools.

Another query at Wednesday’s session dealt with community spread. Allen was asked if Dane County’s 50 cases per 100,000 was high. He said wouldn’t characterize it as low community spread, but he asked, “Does that trigger school closings? I don’t think it does.”

Allen also doesn’t think that the amount of cases should be the only data used in determining if schools should be reopened. There’s a bigger picture to consider, he feels.

No matter what, Allen is determined to keep looking for answers.

“It’s what I think about every single morning when I wake up,” said Allen.

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