Experts Debate Safety of Reopening Schools This Fall

young boys elbow bumping in school while wearing masks

 Westend61 / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • With COVID-19 cases surging across the U.S., parents are divided about whether kids should go back to school or continue to learn virtually.
  • Experts warn there may be an initial increase in cases once kids return to school.
  • Schools across the country should follow guidelines set forth by the CDC in an attempt to keep students and staff safe.

In just a few short weeks, schools across America will begin the tentative process of welcoming students back to class. And while many school districts have opted to offer—or at least start with—distance learning, other districts around the country are planning for either a hybrid model or a 100% return to in-person learning.

Reactions from parents are mixed and divided: ome applaud the decision to return to school while others fear it could put their children's health at risk. But the one thing that’s on all of our minds as the first day of school approaches is whether it's safe for kids to head back to school buildings this fall.

Covid cases
photo courtesy of BBC.

Should Kids Return to School? 

Currently, 39 out of 50 US states are seeing a precipitous rise in COVID-19 cases. A bar graph representing a rolling 7-day average number of cases across the country shows explosive growth.

In general, the virus is far more widespread and much less contained than it was back in March when schools in all 50 states began to shut their doors almost overnight. So if the threat is still very real, many parents wonder why there’s such a big push for students to return to school. 

The Argument For

The answer comes down to the effect that an extended closure could have on America’s schoolchildren. “I think there would be a more devastating outcome to so many of our kids if schools did not open fully in the fall,” says Jenna Dowd, elementary literacy coach and family literacy educational consultant.

“To not open at all and keep learning strictly virtual would be preventing a significant number of our students from receiving the education they need and deserve,” says Dowd.

Another big advocate for in-person learning? President Trump. The back-to-school dilemma has become a political battle, with Trump putting pressure on state governors to reopen educational facilities and send kids back to school.

The president has even threatened to cut funding for non-compliance at a time when states need as much money as possible to make schools safe for students. It’s all part of the administration's push to get the economy back up and running as much as possible before the election on November 3. 

The Argument Against

Leon Vinci, epidemiologist and CEO of Health Promotion Consultants

Public figures, school officials, health leaders and even parents are urging schools to open because 'it is time.' I am afraid it is not.

— Leon Vinci, epidemiologist and CEO of Health Promotion Consultants

Retired environmental epidemiologist Leon Vinci disagrees. In an article for The Roanoke Times, he compares school settings to churches, prisons, and nursing homes in the sense that they all have many people gathered in small spaces and saw a spike in cases.

He writes, “Public figures, school officials, health leaders, and even parents are urging schools to open because ‘it is time.’ I am afraid it is not. We first must focus on the current disease penetration and increasing levels around us. By giving the virus a new mixing bowl in K-12 settings, the next spread will be teachers, school staff and children.”

Another key argument against reopening schools is the threat it would pose to the health of the teachers and other adults working in these schools. Is it really ethical to force teachers to return to a classroom setting when their lives are potentially at risk?

Is It Even Safe For Kids to Return to School? 

“It’s likely there will be an initial spike in infections” in areas that choose to have kids return to school in person, says Dowd. This could very well be the case even if children tend not to transmit the virus as effectively as adults or are less likely to develop symptoms.

Giuseppe Aragona, MD

Although kids may not transmit the virus as much as adults, you still need to take in to account the schools’ adult staff including teachers, office staff, and catering staff who will all be in contact with items around the school.

— Giuseppe Aragona, MD

In COVID-19 hotspots like Arizona, the school year typically starts in late July. In-person classes have been delayed until at least mid-August with the option to offer distance learning in the interim.

In Florida, where positivity rates are increasingly high, schools are currently being required to reopen. “I live in Florida and I feel like we are going to be the guinea pig state for schools opening this year,” says Dowd. “All eyes will be on us as we navigate our first weeks of school.”

Regardless of the number of cases in a particular state, there are measures that each school district should be taking to ensure the safety and well-being of students and staff alike.

Although parents may feel like they’re being forced to send their kids back to school without a well-defined safety roadmap, there’s a good chance that schools are working tirelessly behind the scenes to nail down a safety plan that works within their physical and budgetary limitations. 

How to Keep Kids Safe at School

"Our educational system serves a diverse number of children and schools and there will not be a single, one-plan-fits-all approach,” says Andrew Janowski, MD, an infectious diseases pediatrician and instructor at the Washington University School of Medicine. “Many school districts will have to develop plans that meet the needs of their children, teachers, and administrators, while taking into account the unique aspects of classroom space and sizes.”

What that will look like may vary from one school district to another, but according to Janowski, here’s what you can expect to see at your child’s school if they will be returning this fall. 

  • Social distancing: Schools can either physically space out desks, or operate on split schedules where students will attend on alternating days. 
  • Small groups: In order to contain virus transmission as much as possible, children may need to be isolated in groups. That means they only spend time together with students of the same classroom and do not interact in person with students from other classrooms. 
  • Mask wearing for all ages: Masks will need to be implemented as much as possible and worn throughout the day by all adults, though not all schools may require children to wear masks. Parents should have their kids start practicing with a mask now if their school will require them to wear one so that they’re used to it. Before the first day of school, you'll want to help them cope with any mask anxiety they may have and show them how to put it on and remove it quickly. Be sure to find a mask that fits your child comfortably.
  • Managing symptomatic students and staff: Plans will need to be made to evaluate children on a daily basis if they are symptomatic. Some schools may opt to do random temperature screening, while others may make it mandatory each day for everyone who enters the building. 
  • Altered or canceled bus service: Depending on your child’s school, bus service could be interrupted during this academic year. And if your child does end up riding the bus, expect changes in seating arrangements like one child to a seat, every other row empty, and routine disinfection. 
  • Lots of cleaning: Perhaps more than any other safety measure aside from mask-wearing, Giuseppe Aragona, MD, says proper sanitization will be critical this fall. “It is imperative to keep all items that are in use by more than one person well cleaned, while also ensuring that personal items are kept separate and untouched by others,” he says. 

What This Means For You

If you live in an area where your kids will be returning to school in person, know that your school district is likely working hard to do everything they can to keep your kids safe.

There are so many wonderful benefits to having kids in school. It's great for them socially, and many students learn far better in person than they might virtually. What's more, this arrangement makes it much easier for parents who work outside (and even inside) of the home.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Soucheray S. U.S. COVID case counts rise in 39 states, decline in only 2. University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

  2. Daniel SJ. Education and the COVID-19 pandemic. Prospects (Paris). 2020:1-6. doi:10.1007/s11125-020-09464-3 

  3. Samuels B, Hellman J. Trump says White House will pressure governors to open schools. The Hill.  

  4. Baker P. Trump Threatens to Cut Funding if Schools Do Not Fully Reopen. The New York Times.

  5. Vinci L. Vinci: Now is not the time to reopen schools. The Roanoke Times.

  6. Li X, Xu W, Dozier M, et al. The role of children in transmission of SARS-CoV-2: A rapid review. J Glob Health. 2020;10(1):011101. doi:10.7189/jogh.10.011101

  7. Altavena L. In-person school reopening in Arizona will be delayed until at least Aug. 17. AZ Central.

  8. Alsup D, Andrew S.. Florida will require schools to reopen in August despite a surge in coronavirus cases. CNN.

  9. Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. America Is Reopening. But have we flattened the curve?.

  10. American Academy of Pediatrics. COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry.

By Christin Perry
Christin Perry is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been published in The Bump, The Knot, Scary Mommy, LittleThings, Parents, Qeepsake, and more. She has experience writing email marketing campaigns, website copy, and SEO-optimized content. Christin is also a mom of three.