COVID-19 Will Continue to Disrupt Schools, But We Can Manage It | Opinion

It's time to acknowledge that some schools will have a difficult time fully reopening this year. Many will face disruptions and extended remote learning.

Several trends point to another year of interrupted schooling. The first is inconsistency in vaccination rates across the country. The best defense against the coronavirus and its variants is a vaccine, but low vaccination rates create a path for the more transmissible Delta variant to spread. Inevitably, a positive test will lead to large numbers of students out of school. In England, one million students were absent from school one week in July due to quarantine and self-isolation protocols.

We can expect similar stories in the United States, particularly in states with low vaccination rates. Just 38 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated but states such as Mississippi have just 12 percent vaccinated. Behind these low rates is a hesitancy among parents, nearly a quarter of whom say they will definitely not get their teens vaccinated. Some parents are worried about side effects or want to wait for additional safety and efficacy data. Others wonder why a vaccine is necessary if children are less vulnerable than adults to the coronavirus.

Another trend is the erosion of confidence in our scientific institutions. It's difficult for school leaders and parents to "follow the science" when officials are pointing in different directions. Disagreement between the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC over whether vaccinated individuals need to wear masks in schools in one example. British health officials decided not to vaccinate most teens after concluding that the health benefits were small and did not outweigh the potential risks. The disagreement quickly spread through social media networks of vaccine-hesitant parents, reinforcing fears that scientists don't really know the risks of vaccinating children.

Finally, we should expect some teachers' unions to exploit this uncertainty. Over the last year, unions undermined reopening plans by shifting the goalposts and demanding more than what public health officials deemed necessary for safely bringing back teachers and students. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has said that "CDC guidance is a floor, not a ceiling," and allowed local union chapters to set arbitrary vaccination thresholds and timeframes not based in science or CDC recommendations. The Chicago Teachers Union is already demanding that 80 percent of teens be vaccinated by October.

New York public school
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 25: Paraprofessional Binasa Musovic waves goodbye to students during dismissal at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25, 2021 in New York City. Beginning today through April 7, New York City parents whose children have been learning remotely this year have another opportunity to sign up for in-person learning in the public schools. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

So how are schools to respond?

First, the question should not be whether we reopen schools, but rather how we do so. The vast majority of research suggests that we can safely reopen schools with well-established mitigation measures. Resolve to Save Lives, an organization founded by former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden, reviewed the most recent scientific evidence and concluded, "Evidence from around the world suggests that children spread COVID-19 less than adults; that children with COVID-19 are less likely than adults to become severely ill; and that in-person education has not meaningfully increased community transmission when schools have mitigation measures in place."

Second, mitigation measures should be dependent on the community context. Masks may not be needed for children in a community with high vaccination rates and low case incidence, but they may be an important first line of defense in areas with low vaccination, high case incidence and higher hospitalization rates.

Third, asymptomatic COVID-19 screening programs are essential not only to identify cases, but to assure nervous parents and faculty that schools are safe. Testing could also become an alternative to quarantining large groups of students. In the United Kingdom, researchers from the University of Oxford found daily testing could reduce absences by up to 39 percent.

Fourth, we need a dedicated outreach campaign to address parents' questions about the vaccine. Instead of stigmatizing hesitant parents, we need to create space for them to raise their concerns and find answers without the judgmental tone that defines the debate right now. Such an effort needs to involve pediatricians who command trust among parents. Governors should also explore making the vaccine easily accessible through clinics at schools and local doctors' offices.

Finally, schools need to ensure they have high-quality online learning options available. A significant number of families, particularly Black families, want a virtual option for their children this year. But online learning will also be necessary for students quarantined at home. Improving the quality of virtual classrooms is essential to minimizing academic disruptions.

With precious few weeks left before students return, we must recommit to preparing so as to minimize the disruptions threatened by the Delta variant. This goal is achievable. And it is necessary to ensure our teachers and students have a safe and successful year.

John Bailey worked on the first federal pandemic preparedness plan. He previously served as a domestic policy advisor at the White House and was the director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He is currently a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.