guest column

Opinion: When will schools be safe to reopen?

By , Guest Columnist Updated: July 30, 2020 5:59 AM CT | Published: July 30, 2020 4:00 AM CT
James Aycock
Guest Columnist

James Aycock

James Aycock is a special educator and math instructional coach, a parent of two Shelby County Schools students, and an advocate with Stand for Children.

For the past several weeks, there has been significant public debate — and significant disagreement — around whether to reopen schools for in-person learning. As is often the case, we disagree in large part because we lack a shared definition of terms.

The conversation we need to have is around what levels of COVID-19 in the community will allow for a safe reopening of schools.


Calkins: We’re shutting down high schools but not high school football? Shame on us


Rather than argue about reopening schools, we should be defining levels of risk and setting metrics for stages of reopening. When will it be safe for pre-K and early elementary to resume in-person learning? When will it be safe for middle and high schools to begin hybrid learning? When will it be safe for everyone to return full-time?

In school, students don’t have to ask their teacher, “Are you going to pass or fail me?” Everyone knows that the bar for passing is a grade of 70 or above. The teacher doesn’t decide if a student passes, their grade does, according to the predefined policy.

Likewise, no parent should have to ask the question, “When will schools reopen?” That decision should not be in the hands of one person. There should be policy defining a clear and transparent bar that makes the decision for us.

Other school districts have created policies like this. In Nashville, for example, schools will be closed until the city moves into Phase 3 of reopening.

Locally, I propose that we look to the Key Metrics of COVID Suppression framework from Harvard’s Global Health Institute and Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which uses a two-pronged standard of case rate and positivity rate to define success.

For case rate, the researchers at Harvard define suppression level as less than one daily case per 100,000 people. That should be the bar for a full return to in-person learning for everyone. But there is room for debate about when our youngest children could safely return.


Gov. Lee recommends in-person classes, outlines contingency plans


Harvard sets the next benchmark at less than 10 daily cases per 100,000 people, so maybe that’s the bar for when early elementary can return. Anything above that is considered dangerous. Stay-at-home orders are necessary, they argue, once you pass 25 daily cases per 100,000 people. At that point, the spread is out of control. For context, we passed that bar over a month ago and are at 41 daily cases per 100,000 over the past seven days. Suffice it to say, we have a long way to go until in-person learning is safe.

For positivity rate, the Harvard researchers argue that the only way to return to any semblance of normality is to get below 3%, as most other developed nations have done. In fact, countries like South Korea, Italy and Germany have been under 1% for months now.

There is some room for debate here, though, as others would argue that 5% positive is adequate. Maybe that’s the bar we set for early elementary to return. In Shelby County, however, we hit a seven-day average low of 4.2% positive back on May 19, but have risen steadily ever since to 15.6% positive today. The seven-day average has been over 10% for over a month now. Again, we have a long way to go until in-person learning is safe.


Virtual learning only for Shelby County schools until further notice


The uncertainty over the past few weeks caused a great deal of anxiety for parents and educators. But I’m glad Shelby County Schools made the decision to keep students, families, and staff safe to start the school year.

Now is the time for our elected and appointed officials to begin a public conversation, with real community engagement, to set transparent metrics for what levels of COVID-19 in the community create the conditions for a safe reopening of schools.

James Aycock is a special educator and math instructional coach, a parent of two Shelby County Schools students, and an advocate with Stand for Children.

Topics

COVID-19 school reopening

Comment On This Story

Email Editions

Sign up for our morning and evening editions, plus breaking news.

Manage Your Email Subscriptions