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Listener Questions On School Reopening Answered


Parents, teachers and students across the country are gearing up for the new school year, but what that new school year will look like is a huge question mark. We asked listeners for your questions about reopening schools. Here to answer some of those questions are NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey.

Hi, Allison.


MCCAMMON: And NPR education correspondent Cory Turner.

Hey, Cory


MCCAMMON: I want to start with a question we got from Chris Slater in Massachusetts.

CHRIS SLATER: My question is, are kids really less likely to contract COVID-19?

MCCAMMON: Allison, I've heard this question a lot in the debate over schools.


MCCAMMON: What is the most recent science about how the coronavirus is affecting kids?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, kids definitely do get the virus. Now, overall, they tend not to get as sick as adults. But I spoke to pediatrician Aaron Carroll of Indiana University about what we do and don't know about transmission.

AARON CARROLL: There seems to be less transmission from kids to adults than there is adults to adults. Kids don't seem to be super-spreaders. We don't have reports of sort of, you know, a kid going somewhere and spreading it to a bunch of other kids or even a bunch of other adults.

AUBREY: But here's the concern, Sarah. We pretty much closed schools in March - right? - as the virus started to circulate more widely, so we have not been in a situation to find out if kids might actually be super-spreaders yet. There's still quite a bit of uncertainty.

MCCAMMON: Chris in Chandler, Ariz., sent in this question.

CHRIS: If the doctors and infectious disease experts could snap their fingers and implement their ideal plan without any of the normal political loopholes, what would it look like?

MCCAMMON: And, Cory, what do we know about how it would look? And is it possible?

TURNER: So I think if you talk to school leaders and say, what is your ideal, they would say, without hesitation, bringing all the kids back. They know that children are safer in their schools. There are lots of kids in this country who are, for example, food insecure, who may be experiencing abuse at home, not to mention the obvious academic benefits of simply being in school. We know that remote learning is just not that good. But then what would that look like having all kids in school? Ideally, they would still be socially distant. Ideally, kids will be wearing masks. The challenge, though, is ideal runs headlong into the real. You start shrinking classrooms down when you space out desks. And suddenly, you have to put those extra kids in the gymnasium, or you start having class outside. And then, suddenly, you also need more teachers to be able to do that. I'm not sure there is reconciling the ideal with the real.

MCCAMMON: And, Allison, what is the science behind these recommendations?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, I mean, if you look at masking, for instance, many states have masking mandates for schools. Often, it's for older kids - middle school and up. But increasingly, given all of the new evidence on masking, infectious disease pediatricians say it makes sense to try to mask all students as much as possible. I think the best hope we have for getting our kids back in school is to keep community spread of the virus low. And how do you do that? Well, you do it by, you know, keeping people out of crowded bars and restaurants, by taking all the precautions at home we've been hearing so much about - the social distancing, the masking, the handwashing. So we kind of all have a role here.

MCCAMMON: We're hearing a lot about how useful testing would be, in theory, to help stop the spread of the virus. Julie in Seattle, Wash., asked, are any school districts planning on-site COVID testing? So are they? And if not, why not?

TURNER: So I have only heard anecdotally of one district in Illinois that is considering doing this. And that's because they have a special relationship with the university nearby, which is doing some unique testing. For the most part, though, what I've heard from district leaders is testing is expensive. It's a question of access. It's a question of staffing and logistics. So for the most part, I think, what we're going to see schools doing is maybe temperature checks. I think, also, schools are really just moving to having parents in some way every morning attest to the fact that their children are not showing symptoms and that they took their temperature.

AUBREY: Yeah, I agree, Cory. It's going to come down to, really, the honor system - right? - because think about it. I mean, it's just not feasible to do a daily temperature check at school or on the bus every day. It's also not the best screening tool because we know that a lot of kids with the virus don't spike a fever. So asking about symptoms and, you know, families being honest about their kids' symptoms and keeping kids home when they do have symptoms may be the better way.

MCCAMMON: Back to that idea of we all have a role to play here, big question here that we got from teachers and parents, from Jane in Long Beach, Calif. - she asks, what happens when a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19? Will the whole school be quarantined for two weeks and then retested? Cory, what are you hearing from school leaders you talk to about that?

TURNER: Lots of schools are trying to divide kids into what they're calling pods so that the same small group of, say, 10 or 12 kids will be together all day so that if there is a reported infection from one of those 12 kids, then ideally, you're only quarantining 12 kids instead of every child in the building.

MCCAMMON: Now a question that gets to some of the logistics we've been talking about - let's listen to this one.

LYNN BODDY: My name is Lynn Boddy from Phoenix, Ariz. And my question is, is the government going to give more funding to reduce class size and provide more teachers?

MCCAMMON: So is it?

TURNER: (Laughter) This is the question on the minds and mouths of every school leader and teacher I have spoken with. So quick overview - Congress did pass the CARES Act a while ago. That included about $13.5 billion - with a B - for K-12 schools. But just about anybody who works in and around or on behalf of schools will tell you they need at least 10 times as much not only to cover the costs of COVID but also because this is happening at the same time that we're experiencing a pretty crushing recession. And so state budgets are absolutely slashing their education budgets. It's also, I think, interesting and important context for President Trump's very real push - what he called a pressure campaign last week - to reopen schools. There has been very little talk from his administration on actually helping schools pay for any of this. So, Lynn, that is a great question to which there remains no answer.

MCCAMMON: Allison and Cory, as you look ahead to this unprecedented start of school this fall, what are you going to be watching for?

AUBREY: I think I'll be looking for, what are we going to learn about transmission? Are kids indeed spreading it in this classroom setting? That's a really, really important question to answer.


TURNER: I am going to be looking at the mental health toll that this has taken not only on teachers and parents - obviously, we've talked a lot about that - but on kids. I feel like - I have heard from a lot of educators and a lot of kids, and I've seen it myself. I think this has been incredibly difficult on kids. It has obliterated many support systems for kids. It has distanced them from many of the very important grownups in their lives and, obviously, the other kids in their lives. And that is going to take a toll. That is a trauma. And I don't even think we've begun to reckon with that.

AUBREY: I completely agree, Cory. I mean, I want my kids back in school. I think my hope is that everyone heeds the warnings and messages coming from public health experts and infectious disease experts that we all have to do the right thing if we plan to keep schools open and send our kids to school.

MCCAMMON: A question that I, too, am wrestling with and we - so many of us across this country are wrestling with as we look ahead to the school year.

Thanks so much to you both for helping us field these questions from listeners. That's science correspondent Allison Aubrey and education correspondent Cory Turner. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you so much, Sarah.

TURNER: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.