Schools reopening: Can we really keep teachers and kids safe?

Doctors, parents and school professionals offer their insights.

Amanda Capritto
8 min read
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Teachers, parents and students face tough decisions this fall.

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The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has garnered more hate and backlash (and some support) from the public over its recent announcement that it supports reopening schools in the fall, even as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. 

Parents, teachers, school administrators, custodians and other support staff -- and even students who are old enough to understand the risks of going back to school -- are anguished about whether schools will reopen. They're also wondering what they'll do if they open or don't. 

Some families won't have a choice: Schools will reopen or they won't, and students will have to return or adapt to distance learning. Other schools will try hybrid plans where students spend some time physically in school and some time learning from home. Still others will give families the choice to send their children to school or to keep them at home. 

Everyone has their own opinions, and they're entitled to them, but there's no arguing with the fact that reopening schools this fall comes with gargantuan risks -- not just to students, but to teachers, administrators, support staff and everyone's families. 

This is no decision to take lightly.  

CNET spoke to Rebecca Mannis, PhD, learning specialist and owner of Ivy Prep Learning Center; Dr. Chad Sanborn, pediatric infectious diseases physician at Kidz Medical Services; and Gwen Murphy, PHD, director of epidemiology at LetsGetChecked to learn about the risks of reopening schools in the fall and how families can stay safe.

Read more: The coronavirus is mutating, but you shouldn't freak out about it

The risks of reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic

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Empty classrooms may be a reality this school year.

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We think, or hope, that everyone understands the primary risk of reopening schools during a global pandemic: An increase in the number of people infected and more people with life-threatening cases of COVID-19.

"The main risk would be that the children will contract COVID-19 more frequently in school, and that the teachers will be exposed to and could become infected as well," Dr. Sanborn says. "Aside from the risk of infected children potentially becoming very ill, which is fortunately a rare occurrence, there is also the risk to the children's families if the kids bring the virus home." 

Finally, according to Dr. Sanborn although it seems that children may not spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus as effectively as adults, there is still major concern about a possible spike in infection rates, particularly in regions where infection rates are already high.

Murphy reiterates this concern, although she emphasizes that the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus in schools depends largely on the region's infection rates and other factors. 

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"The risks very much depend on the individual situation for each child, each household and each community," Murphy says. "If your child has certain underlying medical conditions, the risk of contracting COVID-19 after being around lots of other people, including children, is higher."

Likewise, Murphy points out that if someone in your household has a medical condition that makes it more likely they could develop a serious and potentially life-threatening case of COVID-19, having kids go back to school means they could more easily contract the coronavirus and infect that person." 

The takeaway: Reopening schools could lead to increases in infection rates and deaths, although many factors influence the specific risks for a given school. It's up to each family to evaluate the risks of sending their children back to school. 

The expert consensus

distance learning

Distance learning just isn't the same as in-person learning, but many students will have to adapt.

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"One thing is certain," Murphy says, "Any return to school or work will require that we all practice personal hygiene (teaching our kids to wash their hands, cough and sneeze into their elbows, and so on) and pay attention to our general health and symptoms every day, and anyone with any symptoms should stay home."

Other than that, there really is no consensus. We've seen that with the CDC's stance on the matter, followed by the serious backlash from school and medical professionals. 

"While there may not be a true consensus on schools opening, we pediatricians do all agree with the CDC that, in a perfect scenario, we would all like schools to be open," Dr. Sanborn says, nodding to the fact that, based on available evidence, young children don't seem to contract or transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus as easily as adults

Murphy agrees, but also points out that it is true that "children have died because of COVID-19, so there are exceptions that we don't yet understand." Of course, no studies about coronavirus are conclusive, and there is still much to be learned about the way the virus spreads.

Mannis, a learning specialist, says there is abundant conversation among school professionals, and the general consensus in her industry is that "Regardless of how instruction is provided, we need to make learning interactive, effective, equitable and collaborative." 

"Successful learning requires various ingredients," Mannis continues, "such as access to tools, increased training for teachers, opportunity to collaborate, and support for kids and families in terms of academic and emotional aspects of learning in COVID-19 times." 

How to stay safe at school

teacher alone in classroom grading papers

If students do go back to school, classrooms will likely look much different than they're used to.

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The most important thing is to follow the public health rules and guidelines in your area, including state mandates, local mandates and individual school mandates. No matter where you're located, these rules are in place for a good reason: Health officials think they will reduce the transmission of COVID-19. 

For the most part, general public health guidelines apply to schools, too: 

  • Wear masks indoors at all times (and outside when in groups or lines)
  • Sneeze, cough and yawn into your elbow 
  • Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available
  • Wipe down surfaces frequently with antimicrobial wipes or cleaner
  • Stay as far away from other people as you can

The "easy" -- in quotes because none of this is easy -- part is setting up sanitation stations, keeping soap dispensers full, obtaining masks and wiping down surfaces. 

The hard part (and the main problem) is that physical distancing is unlikely to happen at most schools. My memories of public school include packed hallways with students walking in all directions; full classrooms with desks just inches apart; crowded bathrooms and crammed lunch halls.

To combat those issues, Dr. Sanborn says other helpful measures would be to:

  • stagger drop-off and pick-up times
  • alternate times in communal spaces such as the auditorium
  • have small groups rotate through the cafeteria or have children bring their own lunches and eat at their desks if possible
  • Have physical barriers in place when social distancing isn't possible

How to stay safe at home

parent teaches daughter how to wash hands

Teaching good hygiene habits at home can transfer to the school setting.

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No one's efforts to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 can be complete unless the same efforts are taken at home. 

If you send your children back to school, you may think you don't have any control over what happens at school. However, you can contact school administrators and ask about their health and safety protocols. Consider it your duty to make sure your child's school is taking the necessary precautions. 

Parents can also take the liberty of educating and counseling their children about the risks and how to mitigate them -- even young children. Some things you can do to help include: 

  • Help your kids pack their bags the night before school, making sure they have their mask, hand sanitizer, antimicrobial wipes and other necessary supplies.
  • Write a reminder on a whiteboard for your kids to see as they walk out the door each morning. 
  • Talk to them about what's going on at school, and ask whether or not they feel safe. 
  • Read emails and notices from the school, and take advantage of any programs that allow parents to give input. 
  • Reinforce good hygiene habits at home to help your children remain consistent at school.

We know the risk of SARS-CoV-2 living on clothes and shoes is low, but you can still have your kids leave their shoes and backpacks on the porch or in the garage if it makes you feel safer. You may decide it's best for your kids to shower as soon as they get home and put on clean clothes, especially if you have an elderly or immunocompromised person living in your home. 

One other step to take is continuing your practice of social distancing throughout the school year. If you send your kids back to school, it might be best to stay within your "germ pod" and avoid seeing people outside of your household or immediate circle of friends and family. This reduces the risk of secondary infections. 

Other challenges


Many students rely on schools to get breakfast and lunch. 

school cafeteria line

There are so many challenges that arise from reopening schools aside from the obvious health risks. How will lower-income families secure the necessary tools for distance learning? Will schools provide laptops for all students? What about students who don't have internet access? 

Some families struggle to put food on the table for dinner -- now they'll be forced to figure out breakfast and lunch, too. If this is a concern for your family, research programs in your area that may be providing free or discounted meals to students. In some parts of the country, schools that will remain closed are offering meals for pick-up.

If schools don't reopen, families with two working parents who can't work from home might have to either forego a paycheck to care for their kids or pay for childcare. Even parents who work from home may need to line up childcare or home-schooling if their work doesn't allow for frequent breaks or flexible hours. 

Some parents will be thrust into a new role as a homeschool teacher if they haven't already, on top of dealing with other household obligations. Students will have to adapt to new learning environments and potentially forego the dynamic social interactions they're used to getting at school. 

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To put it lightly, parents and school professionals have a lot on their plates right now. Remember that there's no best answer for everyone: There's only best answer for each family, and what's best for your family might not be best for your neighbors, friends, colleagues, siblings or others. 

"The first step is clearly keeping our kids and teachers safe and healthy," Mannis says. "Many schools are likely to face shifts in how instruction is delivered, so we continue to provide instruction that can work in either situation [at home or in school]. It takes strong teaching, along with good planning and coordination, but it is doable." 

This is a time to do what will keep you, your children, and other family members safe and healthy -- without giving mind to what people around you are doing or saying. CNET wishes health, safety and hope to all parents, students, teachers, administrators and support staff. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.