School reopening decisions in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic are being made “largely devoid of data,” according to an op-ed by four Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health experts.
The op-ed, published October 14, 2020 in the Washington Post, was co-authored by Jessica Cohen, Bruce A. Beal, Robert L. Beal, and Alexander S. Beal Associate Professor of Global Health; Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy; Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science; and Benjamin Sommers, Huntley Quelch Professor of Health Care Economics.
“Looking at the national pattern of school choices, it is clear that evidence-based policy is not driving these decisions,” they wrote. “In states with high and increasing rates of community spread, many schools are open for full in-person learning—putting economic and political considerations before safety and health. In states with lower community spread, many schools are still remote, allowing a single factor—fear of COVID-19—to drive decision-making, despite low absolute risks of school-based transmission and ignoring the real-world risks of hybrid or remote learning.”
The authors outlined four principles of evidence-based policymaking that should guide decisions about school reopenings:
- Policy shouldn’t be driven by emotion or anecdote, such as tragic stories about teachers who died from COVID-19 or social media images of teens ignoring safety guidelines.
- Coronavirus cases in schools must be reported in context—for example, in terms of overall population size and whether infections were transmitted in schools or in the broader community.
- Policy analysis should compare data on the relative safety of various schooling options, not simply choose remote learning because it’s “safest.” For instance, if parents are working, children may be in teaching “pods,” nanny shares or group hangouts at playgrounds—meaning there could be more interactions among children and adults, and thus more opportunities for disease transmission than might occur during in-person schooling that requires masks and keeps kids in small groups.
- Policy choices should focus not just on virus transmission, but on metrics such as student learning, engagement, and well-being, as well as economic costs.
“So far, our society’s decision-making on schools doesn’t deserve a passing grade,” they wrote. “Let’s start evaluating school policy related to the pandemic with the attention, balance and evidence it deserves.”
The authors also wrote about school reopenings in a Boston Globe op-ed in July.
Read the Washington Post op-ed: U.S. schooling during covid-19 doesn’t deserve a passing grade. Here’s the way forward.