In Chicago, some students went back to their classrooms in January, but hundreds of teachers did not show up. Many appeared to be more scared of the coronavirus than being cut off from their Google accounts or terminated from their jobs.
But the more we learn about this novel virus, the more we learn that schools are not where COVID-19 is spreading. And yet the fear among teachers has not lessened with that evidence.
As a physician who has cared for COVID-19 patients and a mother of two school-aged kids, I understand the fear. Last spring, I volunteered to work the surge at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Some of my patients died, and those who didn’t needed weeks of therapy. Months after the surge, my clinic patients still sit in our hard exam room chairs and cry as they recount how a parent or sibling died alone.
Photos: COVID-19 Vaccinations
COVID-19 is definitely very scary. All the time I worked the surge, I was scared of getting sick myself and scared of bringing it home to my family. I sent my husband and children out of state. I lost hours of sleep, and when my eyes did close, I dreamed of dying patients.
Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how to protect ourselves from the coronavirus and how to care for people who contract it. I’ve signed up to work the surge again, and this time I feel empowered to safely look after my patients and return to my family each night.
These days, the thing I’m losing sleep over is remote learning. In Brookline, Massachusetts, where I live, we’ve been lucky to have a hybrid option for school, but on remote days there is very limited interactive teaching, with lessons consisting mostly of prerecorded videos and independent assignments. The day my kids started “asynchronous” learning was the day my 10-year-old daughter started whining, “I’m so bored and I don’t understand my math!” She went from a child who loved school and adored her teachers to a grumpy, tearful mess who fell a year behind the curriculum. My 13-year-old son, previously a straight-A student, quickly slid into endless YouTube videos and emails from teachers saying, “We haven’t seen Daniel’s work in weeks.”
If schools were a major source of COVID-19 spread, closing them would be a worthwhile tradeoff. But based on data both internationally and in the U.S., there is very little transmission in schools, and cases found in school often appear to be imported from outside. This is consistent with my experience: The first case of COVID-19 we had at my kids’ school was our principal, who got it from her son, who brought it home from college. She quarantined immediately and the chain ended there.
Why haven’t these findings had a greater effect on our decisions in the United States and teachers’ perception of risk? When I’ve talked to my kids’ teachers, they are clearly afraid; they tell me that the rates of COVID-19 in the community are too high for them to teach face to face. A fourth-grade teacher told me she was quite content to never step foot in the classroom for the year.
I have patients who are teachers as well, and I’ve counseled them on how to ensure classroom teaching is a low-risk activity. One is a middle school teacher in Medford, Massachusetts, where school had been all remote. She is on immunosuppressive medications for her rheumatoid arthritis, but was looking forward to the day when she could put on her mask, open her windows and teach alongside her students. “I can’t tell you how it breaks my heart to see the students upset because they don’t understand and I can’t stand by the side of the desk to explain,” she told me.
My heart goes out to teachers, who are underpaid, underappreciated and often at odds with parents and politicians, but they are more frightened than they need to be. Rather than the masked kids in the classroom, their biggest risk is other teachers and their own family members.
I’m starting to think the safest place for a teacher might actually be the classroom.
And it could be even safer. In October, I volunteered to supervise the kids in my children’s school so the teachers could get a lunch break. When I arrived, the office deployed me to a classroom where all the windows were closed. It was 65 degrees that day, and I spied tents with empty tables and chairs outside.
Meanwhile, inside, the kids dutifully sat in their seats, each more than 6 feet apart, periodically peeling back their masks to take a bite of their sandwiches. This was in sharp contrast to a recommendation I made to the school principal weeks before: One of the easiest ways to avoid contagion is simply to open the windows during instruction and eat lunch outside, as indicated by this handy app from Brown University.
Schools should be embracing fresh air, rain or shine (or even snow). This is the easiest way to avoid outbreaks like one at our hospital that was traced back to the breakroom, where staff had taken off their masks to eat together. What also works is masking up.
What’s less important is the security and hygiene theater of taking everyone’s temperatures or deep-cleaning everyday surfaces. We know now that surfaces rarely, if ever, spread COVID-19. Instead, schools should focus on weekly pooled testing, in which members of a group all contribute to a saliva sample that’s analyzed. If the sample is negative, then in-person school should continue with masks and basic hand hygiene. If it comes up positive, then each person’s sample is individually analyzed so that the case can be identified and isolated.
Frankly, I envy teachers. In my clinic, I sit in an office with no ventilation, only 3 feet of space and a flimsy surgical mask to protect me. My exam rooms are 6 feet by 6 feet with windows sealed shut. We don’t have regular testing of staff – only when there is an outbreak followed by contact tracing. One bright spot in my practice is that my hospital vaccinated my colleagues and me on the front lines by the end of January, and is now vaccinating our highest-risk patients. We are so excited to roll up our sleeves, and hope the relief our nurses, respiratory therapists, housekeepers, security officers and doctors feel will soon be extended to staff in schools. I’d encourage all teachers to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Ultimately, we all want the same thing – kids and teachers safely back in school together. We can achieve that if we focus on facts, not fear.