From the Journals

Send kids to school safely if possible, supplement virtually



The abrupt transition to online learning for American children in kindergarten through 12th grade has left educators and parents unprepared, but virtual learning can be a successful part of education going forward, according to a viewpoint published in JAMA Pediatrics. However, schools also can reopen safely if precautions are taken, and students would benefit in many ways, according to a second viewpoint.

Teenage boy wearing headphones works at desk in his bedroom. monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock

“As policy makers, health care professionals, and parents prepare for the fall semester and as public and private schools grapple with how to make that possible, a better understanding of K-12 virtual learning options and outcomes may facilitate those difficult decisions,” wrote Erik Black, PhD, of the University of Florida, Gainesville; Richard Ferdig, PhD, of Kent State University, Ohio; and Lindsay A. Thompson, MD, of the University of Florida, Gainesville.

“Importantly, K-12 virtual schooling is not suited for all students or all families.”

In a viewpoint published in JAMA Pediatrics, the authors noted that virtual schooling has existed in the United States in various forms for some time. “Just like the myriad options that are available for face-to-face schooling in the U.S., virtual schooling exists in a complex landscape of for-profit, charter, and public options.”

Not all virtual schools are equal

Consequently, not all virtual schools are created equal, they emphasized. Virtual education can be successful for many students when presented by trained online instructors using a curriculum designed to be effective in an online venue.

“Parents need to seek reviews and ask for educational outcomes from each virtual school system to assess the quality of the provided education,” Dr. Black, Dr. Ferdig, and Dr. Thompson emphasized.

Key questions for parents to consider when faced with online learning include the type of technology needed to participate; whether their child can maintain a study schedule and complete assignments with limited supervision; whether their child could ask for help and communicate with teachers through technology including phone, text, email, or video; and whether their child has the basic reading, math, and computer literacy skills to engage in online learning, the authors said. Other questions include the school’s expectations for parents and caregivers, how student information may be shared, and how the virtual school lines up with state standards for K-12 educators (in the case of options outside the public school system).

“The COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique challenge for educators, policymakers, and health care professionals to partner with parents to make the best local and individual decisions for children,” Dr. Black, Dr. Ferdig, and Dr. Thompson concluded.

Schools may be able to open safely

Children continue to make up a low percentage of COVID-19 cases and appear less likely to experience illness, wrote C. Jason Wang, MD, PhD, and Henry Bair, BS, of Stanford (Calif.) University in a second viewpoint also published in JAMA Pediatrics. The impact of long-term school closures extends beyond education and can “exacerbate socioeconomic disparities, amplify existing educational inequalities, and aggravate food insecurity, domestic violence, and mental health disorders,” they wrote.

Dr. Wang and Mr. Bair proposed that school districts “engage key stakeholders to establish a COVID-19 task force, composed of the superintendent, members of the school board, teachers, parents, and health care professionals to develop policies and procedures,” that would allow schools to open safely.

The authors outlined strategies including adapting teaching spaces to accommodate physical distance, with the addition of temporary modular buildings if needed. They advised assigned seating on school buses, and acknowledged the need for the availability of protective equipment, including hand sanitizer and masks, as well as the possible use of transparent barriers on the sides of student desks.

“As the AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] guidance suggests, teachers who must work closely with students with special needs or with students who are unable to wear masks should wear N95 masks if possible or wear face shields in addition to surgical masks,” Dr. Wang and Mr. Bair noted. Other elements of the AAP guidance include the creation of fixed cohorts of students and teachers to limit virus exposure.

“Even with all the precautions in place, COVID-19 outbreaks within schools are still likely,” they said. “Therefore, schools will need to remain flexible and consider temporary closures if there is an outbreak involving multiple students and/or staff and be ready to transition to online education.”

The AAP guidance does not address operational approaches to identifying signs and symptoms of COVID-19, the authors noted. “To address this, we recommend that schools implement multilevel screening for students and staff.”

“In summary, to maximize health and educational outcomes, school districts should adopt some or all of the measures of the AAP guidance and prioritize them after considering local COVID-19 incidence, key stakeholder input, and budgetary constraints,” Dr. Wang and Mr. Bair concluded.

Schools opening is a regional decision

Dr. Howard Smart, chairman of pediatrics at Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, San Diego

Dr. Howard Smart

“The mission of the AAP is to attain optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents, and young adults,” Howard Smart, MD, said in an interview. The question of school reopening “is of national importance, and the AAP has a national role in making recommendations regarding national policy affecting the health of the children.”

“The decision to open schools will be made regionally, but it is important for a nonpolitical national voice to make expert recommendations,” he emphasized.

“Many of the recommendations are ideal goals,” noted Dr. Smart, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group in San Diego. “It will be difficult, for example, to implement symptom screening every day before school, no matter where it is performed. Some of the measures may be quite costly, and take time to implement, or require expansion of school staff, for which there may be no budget.”

In addition, “[n]ot all students are likely to comply with masking, distance, and hand-washing recommendations. One student who is noncompliant will be able to infect many other students and staff, as has been seen in other countries.” Also, parental attitudes toward control measures are likely to affect student attitudes, he noted.

“I have interviewed many families at recent checkups, and most have felt that the rush to remote learning that occurred at the end of the last school year resulted in fairly disorganized instruction,” Dr. Smart said. “They are hoping that, having had the summer to plan ahead, the remote teaching will be handled better. Remote learning will certainly work best for self-motivated, organized students with good family support, as noted in the Black, Ferdig, and Thompson article,” he said.

Pediatricians can support the schools by being a source of evidence-based information for parents, Dr. Smart said. “Pediatricians with time and energy might want to volunteer to hold informational video conferences for parents and/or school personnel if they feel they are up to date on current COVID-19 science and want to handle potentially contentious questions.”

The decision parents make to send their children back to school comes down to a risk-benefit calculation. “In some communities this may be left to parents, while in other communities this will a public health decision,” he said. “It is still not clear whether having students attend school in person will result in increased spread of COVID-19 among the students, or in their communities. Although some evidence from early in the pandemic suggests that children may not spread the virus as much as adults, more recent evidence suggests that children 10 years and older do transmit the virus at least as much as adults.”

“The risk to the students and the community, therefore, is unknown,” and difficult to compare with the benefit of in-person schooling, Dr. Smart noted.

“We will learn quite a bit from communities where students do go back to in-person class, as we follow the progression of COVID-19 over the weeks following the resumption of instruction.” Ultimately, advice to parents will need to be tailored to the current conditions of COVID-19 transmission in the community, he concluded.


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