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The Science Says Kansas City Area Schools Should Reopen

Students in the Independence School Districts whose families picked in-person learning have been back in class for eight weeks. The district hasn't had many coronavirus cases. Public health experts say it's probably safe to reopen schools with precautions like universal masking and physical distancing.
Independence School District
Students in the Independence School Districts whose families picked in-person learning have been back in class for eight weeks. The district hasn't had many coronavirus cases. Public health experts say it's probably safe to reopen schools with precautions like universal masking and physical distancing.

The coronavirus isn’t running rampant through schools that have reopened. Health officials say that’s because with precautions, schools can operate safely.

Most Kansas City area students whose families picked in-person learning this year are now back in school a few days a week.

And though there have been cases in schools that have required other students and teachers to quarantine, few have turned into superspreader events.

“I was one that did not believe we needed to close the schools back in the spring,” Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department said. “I didn’t see evidence that the disease was spreading from those school-age populations to other populations.”

Pediatricians tried to make the case for in-person school this summer. But there was pushback from parents and teachers who didn’t believe having students in classrooms this year was safe under any circumstances, not with coronavirus cases going up. The American Academy of Pediatrics ended up walking back its guidance that in-person learning should be every district’s goal this fall.

As a result, many districts in the Kansas City area started the school year either fully or partially remote.

A few didn’t. Independence said enough families picked online learning to make social distancing possible in buildings, and students returned to schools Aug. 24.

Two months into the school year, the district has 20 active cases. Six of them were at William Chrisman High School; most buildings had no cases at all. Less than one percent of students or teachers were having to quarantine due to exposure at school, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Other districts that have welcomed students back have similarly low numbers. The exception is sports-related clusters, which often quarantine entire teams and coaching staffs.

Reopening high schools is complicated, Archer concedes.

“But the schools really can operate kindergarten through grade school,” he said.

Lessons from open schools

In The Atlantic last week, Emily Oster wrote, “We are starting to get an evidence-based picture of how school reopenings and remote learning are going.”

Oster, a health economist at Brown University, is working with a group of data scientists to track how the coronavirus is spreading in schools. Using data from nearly 200,000 students in 47 states, Oster’s team found an infection rate of about 0.13%. The infection rate for school staff was 0.24%.

Even in high-risk areas, school infection rates for students were less than half a percent. In Kansas and Missouri, the school infection rate for everyone, students and staff, was less than 1% in the last two weeks of September, though it’s worth noting that was before some of the biggest Kansas City area districts brought back students.

Oster told NPR’s Rachel Martin that even in areas that are COVID-19 hot spots, the staff infection rate is mimicking — or lower than — the overall case rate.

“Which suggests, again, this idea that people may be acquiring COVID elsewhere, then, you know, being at a school or being affiliated with a school,” Oster said, “but maybe less that the cases are spreading around the school.”

For example, Oster says teachers are getting the coronavirus even in schools that are fully remote. That means they’re contracting COVID-19 in the community, through activities other than teaching.

Oster’s team concluded that schools aren’t so-called “super-spreaders” as some had feared. That’s good news for school administrators who want to get kids back to class. Kansas City Public Schools announced this week that students would start returning Nov. 9. Other districts, like Shawnee Mission, are in the process of bringing back students even though cases remain high in Johnson County.

Oster said schools should still reopen under those conditions.

“If we're in a position where we're saying, ‘OK, there's a community outbreak; we need to limit what we're doing,’ I feel like a lot of people are talking about it like, ‘OK, the first thing we're going to do is shut schools,’” Oster said.

Instead, Oster said communities should prioritize schools by limiting other activities, such as indoor dining and drinking.

Masks work

Dr. Jennifer Schuster is a pediatric infectious disease expert at Children’s Mercy. For the last several months, she’s been working with school systems that have chosen to provide in-person learning.

“What we’re hearing from them is that the risk mitigation strategies are working,” Schuster said. “Universal masking of both students and staff, physical distancing where able, then hand hygiene and increased cleaning. They’re the same strategies we’ve been recommending for adults for months now.”

They’re also the same strategies that allowed child care facilities to continue operating in the spring even when schools were closed.

Schuster said children actually tend to be more compliant than adults when it comes to wearing masks.

“And I think every child now knows to sing the happy birthday song while they wash their hands,” she added.

There is scientific consensus at this point that kids get less sick than adults from the coronavirus. Their immune systems seem to attack the virus before it can cause serious damage.

Kids can, of course, spread the virus to others, particularly caregivers and teachers. That’s been the driving argument for keeping schools closed, to protect family members and school staff.

But if the school infection rate remains low even as more buildings reopen, the classroom will again be the safest place for more children.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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