Experts say fully reopening primary schools is essential

Experts say fully reopening primary schools is essential

BOSTON — Experts in infectious disease and education argued fully reopening primary schools safely is essential and doable, in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine Wednesday.

Co-author Dr. Meira Levinson, a professor of education at Harvard University and co-author of “Reopening Primary Schools During the Pandemic,” told Boston 25 News children, particularly elementary school students, will not only suffer academically but also socially and developmentally if they do not return to school full-time.

“Young kids, they need caring adults with them by their side to help them focus, to help them accomplish gross motor skills of moving the [computer] mouse,” Levinson said in a Zoom interview Thursday. “For many of the kids, they won’t have the opportunity to learn as much as they would if they had a teacher in the classroom with them, because their parent or guardian is working themselves, is otherwise occupied, does not know the curriculum, is overwhelmed.”

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Levinson also pointed to the need for free and reduced lunch for underfed students, as well as therapy and special education programs.

“Although some in-person schooling is preferable to none, for primary schools in particular these plans may achieve few gains over completely remote learning,” the article states. “Millions of children will remain excluded from learning on the days when they’re assigned to virtual school, owing to digital access challenges, developmental inappropriateness, or lack of real-time adult support.”

The article cites low infection and transmission rates among children, though research on the latter is limited.

Safety measures should be taken when returning to school, Levinson said, including the use of personal protective gear and classroom spacing. But expecting children to stay six feet apart is not practical, she said.

“We should not require schools and teachers to keep young children at social distance in order to open. That would be a recipe for failure,” Levinson said. “We have to assume kids are going to interact in close proximity. We have to assume that any self-respecting teacher is going to go over and comfort a kid who is crying, is going to go over and mediate between children who are having a conflict.”

Levinson said current transmission rates in some Massachusetts communities are low enough to safely reopen, if they stay at that level or lower by fall. In others, the rates are higher, but they may still be low enough to safely reopen with the proper precautions.

Although Massachusetts’ coronavirus cases are lower than most other regions of the country, the state is seeing an uptick, particularly in summer travel destinations. Levinson said she is concerned about the imminent return of college students to the region this fall.

“The most important thing is bringing down community transmission so that the majority of children and teachers aren’t infected,” Levinson said. “Our kids deserve for us to do the things now to make it possible to send children and educators back to school in a way that has an acceptable level of risk, so teachers can teach and children can learn in some semblance of productiveness and joy.”

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