Governments and school systems have been grappling with the decisions of how to prepare students for academic success while also trying to minimize the spread of COVID19. The negative impact of school closures has been disproportionately high on some students, e.g., those who do not have access to technology in the household, lack proper childcare, face an unsafe home environment, or have traditionally relied on the school system for meals, special education, counseling, and other forms of social or emotional support [9, 30]. While children seem to be less affected by COVID 19 than adults, they could be transmitters of COVID19, potentially increasing community infection spread if schools were to return to in-person instruction [6, 18], particularly if the implementation of social distancing measures and recommendations remains financially or physically challenging for some schools (e.g., poor ventilation in buildings, short supply of disinfectant products, state budget shortfalls, etc.) [1, 9].
Guidelines for the state of Georgia recommend for districts with high case numbers to reopen schools with online instruction. However, online instruction poses numerous challenges. Several rural counties have limited internet connectivity; for example, Hancock County ranked number six for COVID19 cases per capita yet only 2% of the county has access to broadband internet . Two-thirds of children in Georgia are not able to read proficiently by the end of third grade; limited or no access to in-person instruction in the fall could further increase this educational gap, with significant long-term consequences [9, 32]. Further, in Georgia, over half of the children are eligible for free and reduced fee school lunches and many families depend on these services .
There has been considerable debate about the benefits and risks of when and how to return to in-person instruction in schools during fall 2020. The American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school .” Some school systems delayed their opening dates or announced fully online instruction for the fall semester, while others considered hybrid models such as “groups of students to attend on alternating days or weeks, as well as allowing only younger students to attend while older students learn at home .”
According to our study results, delaying the reopening date would have a minimal impact on the peak day and peak number of new infections under the alternating school day schedule, the younger children only schedule, and the alternating school day for younger children schedule. However, under the regular schedule, delaying the reopening date from August 10 to September 17 could delay the peak day by 26 days and reduce the peak number of new infections from approximately 67.9 to 43.4 thousand.
The cumulative number of infections as well as the percentage of the population infected at the peak are similar under the alternating school day and the schools closed schedules, and significantly lower compared to the regular schedule. Hence, implementing an alternating school day schedule or limiting interactions between student cohorts during the in-person instruction could have a significant impact on slowing down the disease spread.
The younger children only schedule does not result in a significant reduction in cumulative infections compared to the alternating school day schedule. The alternating school day for younger children schedule reduces the number of infections compared to the younger children only schedule but not as much as the schools closed schedule.
COVID19 has had a significant impact on the society both in terms of public health and social and economic interactions. The health and well-being of the population are of the utmost importance, but there is also a growing desire to return to in-person instruction to support the educational development of children.
As school systems continue to develop plans for reopening, it is critical to understand the impact of various reopening scenarios on public health as well as the children’s development and the economy. Our results suggest that reopening schools following a regular schedule, i.e., all children returning to school without strict public health measures, would significantly increase the number of infections and deaths, i.e., have serious negative public health consequences. The alternating school day schedule, especially if offered as an option to families and teachers who prefer to opt in, provides a good balance in reducing the infection spread compared to the regular schedule, while ensuring access to in-person education.
This study did not consider the use of face masks or testing and tracing; if these measures were incorporated into the model, this would likely lead to a lower number of infections and deaths in all scenarios, due to the reduced transmission rate, but not change the relative ordering of the scenarios regarding infections and deaths. Regardless of how school instruction is formatted in the fall, it is important to continue promoting physical distancing measures and the usage of face masks as well as establishing testing and tracing practices to ensure prevention or early detection of outbreaks in schools.