A little girl sits on her couch at home with a stuffed bunny; they are both wearing face masks.
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Opinion: The Best Of The Bad Options Is In-Person School For K-2 Only

Little kids need to be in the classroom, and we can do it safely if we keep the big ones remote.

The school reopening debate has reached a new phase: retreat. In the face of a massive new wave of COVID cases and crippling staffing shortages, districts from Philadelphia to Detroit to the Denver region have tabled in-person instruction and are reverting back to fully virtual schools. Amid this chaos, there is one path forward that can minimize harm and disruption while maximizing learning: It is time to narrow the focus to providing in-person schooling for Kindergarten through 2nd grade, while keeping the older grades remote.

Although there remains uncertainty around the precise role of children in the transmission of COVID-19, researchers are rather certain that age matters — a lot. A recent meta-analysis found that younger children are half as susceptible as adults, and of course, one needs to catch COVID to be able to spread it (the reason may lie in unique features of youngsters’ immune systems). U.S. elementary schools and child care programs have been operating en masse with remarkably few outbreaks, and as Europe battles a second wave equally as bad as ours, nations are steadfastly keeping primary schools open even as many close secondary buildings.

The key, then, is how to keep elementary school staff safe from other adults. This is where homing in on the early elementary grades comes in. Instead of having to wrangle with the almost military-style logistics required to manage the simultaneous vagaries of multiple age bands, streamlining the reopening process can make it far more successful for everyone. (It may be possible for communities that still have low community spread to have all elementary grades back, but with most of the nation aflame on the COVID maps, these places are going to be the exception).

Getting younger students back is crucial not only because it is safer and more logistically feasible, but because they need it most.

Focusing on in-person early elementary grades, with all school buildings available, allows districts to engage in mitigation measures that should address many of teachers' and families' concerns. For instance, districts will be able to spread out young students, de-densifying the number of adults in one wing of a school at any one time. Indeed, in many ways, the early elementary grades can be made to closely resemble the low-risk child care centers in ways older grades simply cannot. K-2 classes tend to already be self-contained (one teacher per group) and to have smaller class sizes than in the older grades. Critically, reducing the number of in-person grades also allows districts to evade staffing challenges, the Achilles’ heel of so many reopenings: when you only need in-person teachers and transportation for three grade levels (plus pre-K if a district offers it), there is far more slack on the line.

Kindergarten teacher Suzi Han greets students at Weaver Elementary School on the first day of in-person learning in Rossmoor, CA, on Tuesday, September 8. Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

On the flipside, once early elementary kids are removed from the virtual equation and districts pump the brakes on the will-we won't-we, it’s much easier to focus on making remote learning as effective as possible. Resources such as hardware, internet hotspots, tech troubleshooting, and remote learning support can be concentrated on older youth and their teachers. Middle and high schools can dedicate tons of energy toward outreach to students who are not signing in, and those who need social support or food assistance.

Getting younger students back is crucial not only because it is safer and more logistically feasible, but because they need it most. As Columbia University professor Sarah Cohodes wrote back in July, “The difficulties [of virtual school] are greatest for younger children: They are at a higher risk of learning loss, are in a key period for learning how to read, are less able to have online social interactions, and need more supervision at home.” Cohodes was prescient: Early literacy levels are already dropping, and the child care issues posed by having non-self-sufficient children at home has brought the hammer down on a staggering number of parents — primarily mothers — who have been forced out of the labor force as a result.

Communicating the relative safety of young children in spread-out environments — and the distinction of little ones from, say, high schoolers who are apt to socialize outside of school — is a first step. Any reopening plan must acknowledge that teachers and families of color are disproportionately and understandably wary of in-person instruction. Due to racism, chronic underfunding, and broken promises (three deeply related factors), students of color are much more likely to attend schools with substandard facilities, and Black and Latino populations have suffered far more harshly from COVID. In addition to ensuring that parents always have the option to choose remote learning, district leaders must engage families of color with young students, and their teachers, to understand and start addressing what they would need to feel comfortable returning.

Kindergarten students socially distance during a "mask break" from class at Rogers International School on October 21 in Stamford, Connecticut. John Moore/Getty Images

Even narrowing the scope of the reopening, though, still requires more funding (to say nothing of the need to get the virus under control by taking steps like paying restaurants and bars to stay closed on the inside). Adequate staffing is required to adjust to inevitable teacher absences and to maintain a robust remote learning option both for older grades and young students whose parents opt-out, or who are temporarily quarantined due to an exposure. Good testing and tracing capacity remains essential. Again, though, the burden on districts is substantially relieved by focusing only on one age band.

While a vaccine is now truly on the horizon, this new and awful COVID wave is not going away anytime soon. For the sake of children, parents, and teachers, it’s time to turn to the obvious compromise, the least-bad in a bucket of bad options: early elementary kids in-person, older kids virtual. Instead of continuing to argue about the ‘should we,’ every ounce of time and attention must start going to solve the operational challenges of how we salvage the rest of an already catastrophic school year.