Forty-eight days. That's the amount of time one young patient had to be hospitalized at Children's Minnesota after contracting COVID-19.
Thankfully, that is the longest period — so far — that a child needed this level of care at the state's well-known pediatric medical center. And while the severity of the illness has been the exception, the lengthy stay offers a reality check as Gov. Tim Walz is expected to announce a decision July 30 on school reopening.
School-aged children appear to be at low risk of severe COVID, but that does not equate to no risk. In addition, at this point in the pandemic, there is "insufficient evidence" to say with certainty how readily children contract the virus and how contagious they are once they do, according to a new report from the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
These findings are sobering, but not meant to be an argument against resuming in-school education this fall in some fashion. Instead, the Star Tribune Editorial Board agrees with the National Academies that the importance of a traditional classroom setting in educational outcomes and children's well-being necessitates trying to strike a balance. That means managing health risks and making smart, informed choices about when classroom instruction is safe and who would best benefit from it.
To succeed, this strategy will take flexibility, adjusted expectations and acknowledgment that reopening is not easy or risk-free. The U.S. has been setting new daily highs for COVID cases. How and when to reopen safely is a dauntingly complex decision.
Superintendents should not be put in a snow-day situation in which they eyeball the local weather, look at the forecast and make a call. Expert guidance is needed from state health and education officials, which is why a resolution passed by the Minnesota Senate last week calling on Walz to cede reopening authority to local school leaders was ill-advised. Here's a better approach, one emerging as a best practice nationally:
• Establish clear, robust guardrails from the state for local decisionmaking. This collaborative approach would allow flexibility at the local level yet have strong checks in place for COVID containment. Schools generally are looking at three scenarios: in-person learning, online only, or a mix of the two. State experts could provide thresholds for COVID community spread or decline that would require shifts to remote learning or would greenlight the expanding of classroom time. The thresholds would allow regions less hard-hit from COVID to resume more normal practices, while protecting students and teachers where the disease is spreading.
Guidance released by the state Education Department earlier this summer suggest that Minnesota is heading in this direction. It's important to note that several school leaders an editorial writer spoke to last week favored this approach. As one noted, "We're educators, not public health experts."
Other worthy strategies for educators and lawmakers:
• Prioritize younger children. If school facilities cannot accommodate all students for social distancing reasons, emphasize getting the youngest students back in the classroom. Online learning is better suited for older kids. Younger students benefit more from social interactions in a classroom.
• Find solutions for at-risk learners. Some older students may need to be prioritized for in-person instruction as well. A recent New York Times commentary proposed "Safe Centers for Online Learning," or "SCOLS," which could use vacant space in schools relying on online learning. SCOLS could provide in-person access to technology and assistance with assigned work.
• Delay the school year's start if necessary. Readying school buildings and pandemic curriculum planning takes time. If the traditional opening date isn't workable, don't force it. Schools in other states are delaying starts. The goal should not be starting on time, but keeping schools and learning going without interruption from COVID.
• Expand access to technology. Some districts or schools are closing technology gaps by providing iPads or Chromebooks with mobile hot spots. This isn't an option everywhere but should be done when possible. Private-sector partners should step up and ask how they can help schools meet this need.
• Offset child care expenses. Parents juggling work and nontraditional school schedules will struggle. Lawmakers should figure out how to help.
• Boost aid, flexibility for staffing. Finding substitutes for teachers who need to quarantine will be a problem, especially in less-populated rural areas. Aid and policy changes are needed to expand substitutes' ranks.
To all parents and students longing for a normal school year, we sympathize. This hasn't been easy, and progress will be incremental. COVID, it's clear, has lessons to teach all of us about the value of patience and persistence.