As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across America, with more than 23 million cases to date, many Americans are looking to the respite and hope that the newly approved vaccines will bring. But with vaccines as yet untested in children, what is the outlook for getting children back into the classroom over the coming months?

Teaching assistant Susan Jussel monitors a remote learning class at the Valencia Newcomer School in Phoenix last Sept. 2. Communicating during the coronavirus pandemic has been trying for parents and students at the Phoenix school for refugees, who speak myriad languages and are learning to use technology like iPads and messaging apps. Before the pandemic struck, one in five teens couldn’t take part in virtual learning or online homework because their families lack a computer or access to an internet connection. Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

We know that America’s school children are struggling in the face of this pandemic. Even before the pandemic struck, we knew that one in five teens was unable to take part in virtual learning or online homework because their families don’t own a computer or have access to an internet connection. Black, Latino and Native American students are particularly hard hit.

Since COVID-19 hit and many school systems turned to all-remote learning, children of all ages have simply vanished from the rosters.

Last September, for example, Los Angeles reported kindergarten enrollment was down by 14 percent, with nearly 6,000 fewer children enrolling in classes. The number of youth attending high school dropped as well.

A December analysis of data from 33 states compiled by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press shows that enrollment in public K-12 schools dropped by more than 500,000 students over the course of one year. The largest drop was among kindergarten-aged students. Among those children who are homeless, in foster care, or have disabilities, an estimated 3 million have simply vanished from the system altogether.

For those kids who are continuing in the education system, we are seeing significant declines in test scores. NWEA, a national testing organization, reported that students in grades 3-8 dropped 5 to 10 percentile points in math assessments from last year.

While we know children do better when they attend school in person, the timing for getting them back in a classroom is still unknown since children have yet to take part in any clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines, which puts them last in line to receive vaccinations.

What will it take to get K-12 kids back in the classroom?

In a recent report from The Rockefeller Foundation titled “Taking Back Control,” they point to the importance of testing to getting children back to school: “Schools should plan to reopen in waves as testing capacity comes online, which will also allow districts to solve the logistical challenges in standing up routine testing programs. Students should be tested at least once a week – every week. Adults, including teachers and all in-classroom personnel as well as outside of classroom staff including administrators, bus drivers, cleaning and maintenance teams, technical staff and any others, should be tested at least twice a week – every week. To ensure that all schools can reopen with sufficient testing support, the federal government should implement a plan to provide dedicated testing capacity and implementation support to all schools that wish to use it.”

The Rockefeller Foundation has outlined an aggressive timeline, with a target of Feb. 1 for reopening all of the nation’s 56,000 public elementary schools. They estimate that a minimum of 85 million tests would be needed per month to achieve this goal. They recommend targeting middle schools several weeks later with 70 million additional tests per month and by March 1, they believe the nation will have sufficient capacity to test the 25,000 high schools across the nation. The order of reopening is predicated on the fact that there has not been a community outbreak traced to an elementary school, and contact tracing studies have found that children are almost never the source in infection clusters.

They estimate a total cost of $8.5 billion per month for the remainder of the school year to achieve testing capacity across all public schools. These costs are expected to drop by next fall as newer testing technologies are developed and more vaccines are administered.

Of course, schools must also continue to employ aggressive mitigation strategies that include mask wearing, regular hand washing, improved ventilation and physical distancing among both students and staff.

Getting children back to school safely is a national imperative. We must all work together at the public health level, and across our governmental and educational systems to ensure that all children have access to the resources to safely return to the classroom. There is simply no time to lose.


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