Mar 11, 2021 - Politics & Policy

First look: New report urges reopening of schools

Illustration of an open backpack with a giant bottle of hand sanitizer in it
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There's a dire need to reopen schools as quickly as possible — and it can be done without endangering teachers, families or the community, a report to be presented to members of Congress concludes.

Why it matters: With its conclusion that masking, hand-washing, good ventilation and social distancing can make schools safe for everyone, the report tries to bring clarity to what has been an enormously polarizing issue.

Driving the news: The report — commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and five other nonprofits — analyzed the conclusions of more than 130 studies of whether schools can be reopened safely. It found the public benefits of school closures "questionable."

  • Any benefits to closing schools are far outweighed by the grave risks to children from remote-only schooling — risks that intensify the longer it continues, the report says.
  • The harms include academic loss — so severe that it could set children back for life — and mental health problems related to loneliness and isolation.
  • There are also severe hardships on parents — mothers in particular, about two million of whom have left the workforce to care for their kids as part of remote learning.
  • "Schools are not super-spreaders," observes the report, written by John P. Bailey, a former deputy policy director at the Department of Commerce.

The details: One study highlighted in the report — by the Chicago Department of Public Health — compared the Chicago Public Schools, which have been closed for a year, with the Chicago Archdiocese schools, which reopened in the fall.

  • When they reopened, the Archdiocese schools required masking, physical distancing, daily on-site temperature and symptom checks, and other measures.
  • "The estimated COVID attack rate among students at Archdiocese schools was 0.2% — significantly lower than the 0.4% rate for all Chicago children," Bailey said.
  • And the Archdiocese students made academic gains, test scores showed — while the public school students likely fell further behind.

Where it stands: On Friday, Bailey will present the report to the House Committee on Education and Labor. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are also being briefed.

  • More than 50 million children have stayed home from school and shifted to remote learning since the pandemic began. School reopenings have proceeded fitfully.

What they're saying: "The kids that have been out of school the longest have the most urgent need of getting back in the classroom," Bailey tells Axios.

  • "There's also a group of students for whom remote learning has been a struggle — and they're falling behind. That is a group of students that should be prioritized for in person instruction as well."
  • Mental health problems among school kids are so pervasive that "it's another pandemic beneath the current pandemic that we're facing," says Bailey, who's a fellow at AEI and adviser at the Walton Family Foundation.

The bottom line: "It is possible to do this in a way that brings kids back in the classroom and protects teachers," Bailey said.

Go deeper: Exclusive: Teenagers' mental health claims doubled last spring

Go deeper