A look inside schools’ reopening decisions, HPM's Donohue weighs in


Best education, safety decisions conflict

TRIB LIVE - Repeated studies have shown transmission among elementary-aged children is much lower than, say, high school students and adults, according to Julie Donohue, a professor of health policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. That’s given rise to discussions in the science community about whether to prioritize lower, foundational grades that are risking a “lifetime loss of learning.” Throughout the country and region, even as cases are reported among students and even though some buildings had to close, the number of in-school infections has been lower than many had expected. 

But schools across the country still worry about transmission among teachers and staff, which in turn spreads in the larger community. Educators also worry about labor shortages that inevitably follow when too many become infected and need to quarantine.

In all schools with any degree of in-person learning, Donohue said certain protocols are critical to stemming potential transmission and allowing at least some degree of normalcy. She named strategies such as universal mask-wearing, heightened sanitizing and hygiene practices, and “cohorting” — dividing students and staff into distinct groups with minimal interaction between each other — to reduce their number of contacts throughout the day.

But each district is grappling with its own set of variables — population density, testing ability, and community transmission, for example, that contribute to infections spreading in buildings. And as districts in Western Pennsylvania operate mostly autonomously, with limited concrete guidance from the state, Donohue said educators have a difficult balance to strike.

“It’s an incredibly challenging set of decisions to make,” Donohue said, one that involves weighing the “very real costs associated with fully remote learning.” Some examples of those costs: learning loss, interference in parents’ ability to work outside the home, productivity, income loss, and inequities for vulnerable populations.

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