What Will It Take to Reopen Schools?

A panel discussion on the controversial — but critical — prospect of getting schools open again, featuring bestselling author Emily Oster, infectious disease specialist Amesh Adalja, and Higher Ground CEO Ray Girn.

Melissa McElhill

Almost a year into the pandemic, close to half of American students are still not in school. While new variants of COVID-19 may complicate plans to reopen schools quickly, failing to do so represents an unprecedented breach of trust by the education system in the United States; one that will affect children and families for years. Throughout the pandemic, Guidepost Montessori schools have remained open, but this approach remains an anomaly. So, what’s to be done?

Last week, Matt Bateman, Vice President of Pedagogy at Higher Ground Education, gathered three of the country's top thinkers to discuss just what it will take to get America's children back to school. The guests included:

  • Emily Oster, Professor of Economics at Brown University and bestselling author of Expecting Better and Cribsheet, which take a data-driven approach to decision-making in pregnancy and parenting.
  • Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. His work is focused on emerging infectious diseases, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity.
  • Ray Girn, CEO and founder of Higher Ground Education and a former teacher and curriculum developer. He continues to lead Guidepost Montessori's COVID-19 strategy to keep children safe at school.

During the discussion, the panel gave an overview of the current state of schools, discussed the double standards applied to schools versus other public institutions, and argued that school closures have been driven more by politics than by science.

Here are a few highlights of that conversation:

"How has the pandemic affected schools?" More like, “How has the pandemic not affected schools?”

When asked about how schools have been affected by the pandemic over the last year, Oster argued that it might be more useful to ask how COVID-19 hasn't impacted them. "The landscape is completely different than it was," said Oster. Indeed, while some states kept public schools open from March 2020 onwards, many schools were encouraged or forced to close, and during that time, schools have opened and then closed on repeat—sometimes only opening for a few weeks at a time—in a bemusing haze of changing policies and local COVID-19 outbreaks.

Girn agreed that there was a feeling of uncertainty during the onset of COVID-19, due to the universal lack of understanding of the disease and the changes that needed to be put in place—such as social distancing—in order to run schools safely. However, Girn said that during Guidepost Montessori's initial period of adjustment, he and his staff found that running Montessori schools during COVID-19 was a surmountable challenge. Girn also suggested that thinking about the best ways to deliver education during a global pandemic demanded the same kind of dedication and innovation that his company was founded upon, which is not a bad thing. "What we've seen at Guidepost is the result of resourcefulness and creativity," said Girn.

Respecting parent agency

Girn argued that school operators have to consider the extent to which they're imposing a certain approach to COVID-19 on families, and should maximize the ability of parents to make their own judgments. "The way our schools are run is Montessori, where you take the approach that you cannot keep your child in a bubble and protect them from everything," said Girn. This attitude has formed an integral part of Guidepost's COVID-19 manifesto. Parents are given transparent information regarding their school's safety protocols, and so can clearly see that while the risk of COVID-19 transmission cannot be eliminated, it can be managed, and if they want to take the minimal risk by sending their child to school, it's totally up to them. Higher Ground's aim is to meet the needs of every family, which is why flexible learning options through Virtual School were available long before the pandemic, and will continue to be a viable option once it’s over.

Gyms versus schools: Double standards

A feeling the panelists generally shared was frustration towards the double standard applied to schools versus other public places when COVID-19 outbreaks occur. Oster mentioned a recent story about super spreading events at exercise gyms, where people attended high intensity fitness classes while exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, became sick, and possibly infected many other gym-goers. The prevailing response to the spike in infections was "remember to wear a mask when you go to the gym." Oster argued that if the same thing happened at a school, the situation would be totally different—that the school would be closed. "It's fine to have casinos, it's fine to have gyms," added Oster. "It's fine to have a percentage of indoor dining, but somehow schools are at the end of the rope."

When you think about the profound effects that school closures can have on children, especially when they can't get access to high-quality learning programs at home, it seems incompetent (if not cruel) when governments keep gyms open while schools remain closed. "It's disastrous," said Adalja. "Especially for economically disadvantaged students... We know that [education] correlates with lifetime earning ability and lifespan, so these are real problems that have to be solved, like now."

Arguably, some school is better than none. Girn added that, as a critic of traditional education, he finds himself in the strange position of defending traditional schools. "Kids should be in school. And the trade-offs [both short-term and long-term] haven't really been made public," urged Girn. "Our inability to evaluate the trade-offs, culturally, is itself an indictment of our education system."

Was the decision to close schools based on science or politics?

At the beginning of the pandemic, many schools quickly closed because COVID-19 shared transmission similarities with influenza, which is known to spread in schools. But, as Adalja pointed out, even when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data came out from Wisconsin showing that there were high levels of community spread of COVID-19, they were still able to keep the disease out of their schools. Their schools, it seemed, were the safest places to be. While it seems counterintuitive, community prevalence and school prevalence are generally disparate: just because COVID-19 infects a town, doesn't mean the local school will become infected.

"I think [school closures] have gotten completely tied up in politics because I'm sitting here in Pennsylvania—in Pittsburgh—and the Pittsburgh school district is closed, but the surrounding suburban public schools are either open and hybrid (offering supplemental education online), or open full-time... and all the private schools are open," said Adalja. "There's nothing really different about the transmission dynamics," he added, arguing that there's no scientific reason why schools in the city of Pittsburgh are closed while those in the immediate surrounding areas remain open. "In the city of Pittsburgh, they had no qualms about opening the casino, where we were getting super spreading events at blackjack and poker tables. But when you try to open a school, it becomes impossible."

Bateman added that, due to the differences in school resources, some people cynically argued that unless incredibly stringent safety measures be put in place—like hi-tech ventilation systems—then schools should remain closed. He suggested that these claims seemed to be more political than scientific in nature. Oster agreed. "Protocols do need to be put in place,” she said, “but we can take it too far by arguing that schools need a tremendous set of resources, as many public schools in densely populated areas have still minimized outbreaks."

So, what will it take to reopen schools?

Overall, the panel agreed that the general narrative concerning reopening schools is now a lot more positive for several reasons: the understanding scientists have developed around COVID-19, the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccinations, and the confidence that educators and school administrators have gained through months of working at schools during the pandemic.

The panel’s general consensus was that following best practices to stay healthy during the pandemic, such as social distancing, wearing a face mask, and maintaining good hand hygiene are important elements of reopening schools. It's also important that teachers and school administrators do what they can to minimize transmission by wearing face masks and avoiding spending time together in staff rooms.

Ideally, testing will become more widely available across the country. As Oster mentioned, if she ever feels anxious because her children wake up with COVID-19 symptoms, she can go to a drive-through testing center and get negative test results before sending her children to school. "I happen to live in a location where testing is really available," said Oster. "When you have the negative test results, you have reassurance... and that's something worth putting into schools."

For parents who live in states where schools are still closed, Adalja recommended writing a letter to their schoolboard representative or local politician. "Parents need to get more politically vocal," said Adalja. In places like Chicago and San Francisco, where parents voiced their dissatisfaction concerning ongoing school closures, grassroots activism succeeded in getting them back open. "The genie isn't going back into the bottle," added Adalja, who argued that if schools remain closed for another semester, it will spell the end of public schools, because they're failing to provide the service people's taxes have paid for.

Childhood development won't pause for a pandemic. In addition to Virtual School, Higher Ground continues to develop at-home learning programs in partnership with public and charter schools in order to serve the needs of children nationwide. Girn said that he hopes local governments will reconsider school closures when they see how successfully children can learn without going to school. Ultimately, as the United States evaluates when and how to reopen schools safely, you need to consider what works best for you and your family, and be willing to readdress your decision — to send your child to school or keep them at home — as the pandemic situation changes over time.


Read more about Guidepost's COVID-19 safety protocols:

Explore Guidepost's learning options:

Learn more about Guidepost's school partnership program:

Meet the Author

Melissa McElhill

Melissa is an AMI-certified educator who has taught children aged 10 weeks to 18 years old in the UK, US and China. She is also a positive discipline parent coach, helping families integrate Montessori principles into their lives.

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