House Committee Split Over School Reopening


Experts in education and public health assessed the risks and benefits of continuing school closures versus returning to the classroom in the midst of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, during a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Witnesses also explored the risks of infection and transmission among children, and the possible need for supplemental funding and guidance to allow school districts to implement mitigation protocols, for students returning to schools, and ensure equity in remote learning, for those students who do not.

Thursday’s hearing illustrated just how political the question of school reopening has become.

In late July, President Trump argued that children are “almost immune” to the novel coronavirus, and that schools must reopen. (On Wednesday, Facebook and Twitter removed a video posted by the president’s campaign account that showed him making the same false statement about children being almost immune to the virus.) At one point, he even threatened to withhold funding from those schools that do not fully reopen.

Democrats and other key stakeholders argue that the president’s assertions about children are false and worry that he’s putting lives at risk by ignoring the reality of the pandemic for the sake of the economy. After all, many parents cannot return to work until their children return to school.

Meanwhile those Republicans who advocate for a return to the classroom tend to emphasize the educational losses that children have endured because of school closures.

Ranking member Steve Scalise (R-La.) said he worries about children’s physical health and mental health, as well as their “educational health.” He noted that low-income children risk even greater losses.

In addition, while child abuse reports have fallen, the abuse itself likely has not, he said.

“Teachers can’t report what they can’t see,” he added.

Scalise also quoted CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, who testified in late July that “it’s in the public health’s best interest for K-12 students to get back into face-to-face learning.”

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who served under President Obama and testified at Thursday’s hearing, called the federal government’s failure to rein in the pandemic and to plan for children’s return to school “an unforced error. We’re in this situation because our federal leadership failed us, period. It did not have to be this way,” he said.

As for the president’s claim that children are “almost immune,” Caitlin Rivers, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said that although children are much less likely to experience serious illness, they can get the virus, and “it’s become increasingly clear that it is possible for children to spread the virus.”

Rivers cited an outbreak at a summer camp in Georgia where nearly half the campers became infected with the virus.

Still, less than 1% of COVID-19 related deaths were children. That is to say, 488 people under age 24 have died from COVID-19 as of July 29, Rivers said, citing the CDC.

In determining whether or not to reopen schools, communities should create coalitions made of staff, health officials, and families in that community, Rivers suggested.

The key determining factor over whether schools should reopen should be community rates of infection.

Another witness, Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools in Florida, said that almost universally public health experts and infectious diseases physicians have said that children should not return to school until positivity rates fall to 3%-5% over a “rolling 2-week average.”

In Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, the local average is still around 10% and has reached as high as 20%. Runcie said he will not risk exposing students and staff by reopening schools until the virus has been contained.

But communities need technical support to make these decisions, argued Rivers — “school leaders and families are not experts in epidemiology or pandemic preparedness.”

They also need clear guidance from the federal and local public health authorities and supplemental funding to help implement mitigation measures meant to stop the spread of the virus, and to pay for technology to support remote learning.

Runcie agreed with the need for more funding and specifically called on congress to provide $200 billion for public schools around the country in its next coronavirus relief package.

The money would be used to make up for shortfalls in state and local revenues, to help feed families, to connect families with reliable high speed internet, and to pay for personal protective equipment and sanitation equipment and supplies, he said.

Dan Lips, a visiting scholar with The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, also argued that funding is needed to navigate the academic crisis, but he suggested that those dollars could be steered directly to parents in low-income households.

Like Scalise, he emphasized that prolonged school closures have hit low-income children the hardest and created a learning gap. He also said “alarming evidence” has shown that school closures have endangered child welfare.

Seventy-one of the 120 largest school districts will be starting the school year remotely and of the seven million children served in those districts, 1.4 million live in poverty, Lips said.

While rich families can afford to home-school their children, to hire teachers or tutors, or create “micro-schools” and “pandemic learning pods,” poor families lack these options.

For that reason, Lips suggested that states should use CARES Act funding to provide “education savings accounts” or scholarships to their low income students, to support disadvantaged children’s “outside-of-school learning needs” while schools are closed.

“Oklahoma, New Hampshire, South Carolina are already doing this. Other states should follow their lead,” he said.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who did not get a chance to ask questions of Lips, nonetheless said she liked what he was saying about “tutoring and teaching, one and two and three kids in a community.”

Waters said she planned to get in touch and speak more about the idea.

  • author['full_name']

    Shannon Firth has been reporting on health policy as MedPage Today’s Washington correspondent since 2014. She is also a member of the site’s Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team. Follow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *