Grappling with school reopenings amid the coronavirus

Schools can reopen in the U.S., but it would be best to continue online learning in places with high levels of COVID-19 transmission until community spread of the disease can be lowered, according to Michelle Williams, dean of the faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a July 21, 2020 interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Williams said that in places where the positivity rate—the percentage of COVID-19 tests that are positive—is less than 5%, protocols such as social distancing, mask wearing, and proper hygiene can help schools reopen safely. But in places where the positivity rate is higher, “I would say to do everything necessary to bring the community spread down and start to safely position students for re-engaging with online learning, until the positivity rate comes down to 5%,” she said.

The positivity rate is an important indicator, because it can provide insights into whether a community is conducting enough testing to find COVID-19 cases.

Some proponents of reopening schools across the U.S. have argued that children infected with the coronavirus either won’t get sick at all or will recover quickly. But Williams said it’s important to think about the health of the entire community—because science suggests that kids, particularly older ones, can transmit the coronavirus at roughly the same rate that adults do. “This is not the kind of disease where it’s only about the individual that’s positive,” she said. “It’s about breaking the cycle of transmission to vulnerable individuals.”

Watch the CNBC interview: Dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health on whether schools should reopen

Learn more

Op-eds: Schools should reopen this fall. Here’s how. (Harvard Chan School news)