Coronavirus

Here’s what 2 Harvard professors say is needed to keep schools open in the fall

“Closing schools should be off limits.”

Suzanne Kreiter / Boston Globe

It is likely that the United States will see an increase in COVID-19 cases this fall and winter, and two Harvard professors are arguing that closing schools in response to those potential upticks is a mistake that can be avoided. 

Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Chan School, laid out their recommendations in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post for how to ensure schools remain open in the fall, even if their communities see an increase in cases. 

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If the United States does experience a surge of cases in the fall, it won’t be at all like the deadly wave that claimed thousands of lives last winter, since the age groups at risk for severe disease from the virus have seen high rates of vaccination, the professors wrote.

But there is still the expectation that the country will see an increase in cases and pockets of outbreaks among unvaccinated adults and kids. 

“The No. 1 thing we can do is continue vaccinating like crazy and reaching communities where immunization rates are lowest — especially Black and Hispanic communities, and Republican men,” the experts wrote. “But we should also be preparing schools for any potential ‘surges.’ Even though such surges are poor indicators for the risk kids face, and teachers will have had access to vaccines for months, it’s worth neutralizing the threat so that schools can resist pressure to close.”

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First, there needs to be heavy investment in rapid tests, they wrote. Having the tests on-site at schools will allow a quick, clear answer on if a kid’s cold symptoms are COVID-19 or something more common, and prevent the unnecessary quarantining of a whole classroom, the professors said. The rapid tests will also help determine when someone who is infected with COVID-19 can return to work or the classroom. 

“Quarantining is a strategy that is used when we don’t know if a potentially exposed person is infected and a risk to others,” Allen and Mina said. “But with rapid tests, which take just 60 seconds in the morning, we don’t have to guess who is infectious. If negative, a rapid test can offer high confidence that a person is not infectious and can go to school.”

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Second, the Harvard professors said schools should use their stimulus funds to improve the ventilation and filtration in buildings to help reduce airborne transmission. 

“The first thing to do is understand what their buildings can and can’t do,” they wrote. “Hire a good mechanical engineer or commissioning agent to assess and optimize existing systems, like a tuneup for a car. Once schools know what they have, they should prioritize increasing the amount of fresh outdoor air and upgrading filters to MERV 13 or higher to achieve four to six air changes per hour of ‘clean’ air in every classroom. If that’s not possible and if opening windows doesn’t produce enough ventilation (in many cases it does), schools can always use portable air cleaners with HEPA filters.”

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The “rule of thumb,” is to get a device with a clean air delivery rate of 350 for every 500 square feet, they wrote. 

While Allen and Mina are continuing to argue that masks are not needed for kids in schools in the fall, they wrote that face coverings remain one of the easiest interventions to pick back up should something unexpected happen with the next school year. 

“After most disasters, such as a hurricane, people pick up the pieces and plod along in their recovery in a linear fashion,” they wrote in the Post. “That’s not how pandemics work. We have to be flexible in our response, scaling up controls as cases rise and pulling back on some controls when things look better. No matter what, however, closing schools should be off limits.”

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Massachusetts officials announced last week that in-person learning will be required at schools in the fall. Districts are being encouraged to maintain ventilation upgrades where possible, along with hygiene practices and to extend policies that make it possible for sick students and faculty to stay home. But the state will be lifting physical distancing requirements in schools and districts will no longer be permitted to offer remote learning as a standard learning model.

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