Why risks of resuming in-person classes outweigh problems of remote learning

Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Reports show that remote learning hasn’t worked during the coronavirus pandemic, and some educators say they won’t teach in-person classes in the fall. 

However, Harvard’s Joseph Allen makes the case for why kids should indeed return to physical classrooms this fall. Allen is a professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard’s School of Public Health. He’s also director of the school’s “Healthy Buildings” program.

KCRW: You argue that students should go back to school because distance learning is iffy. What are your other reasons?

Joseph Allen: “There are a lot more reasons. I think anytime we have this conversation about schools and school closures, we have to talk about just the devastating consequences at an individual and societal level from school closures. 

First, we're creating virtual dropouts. I'm in Boston. For example, in our Boston public high schools, 10,000 students didn't log in at all in May. Philadelphia, a similar problem. Younger age group and elementary schools, only 50% made daily contact. 

We also know that when students are not at school, they're more sedentary. So that has implications for physical and cardiovascular health. Over 30 million kids rely on schools for nutrition. So there are a lot of reasons we have to be concerned with, before we make that decision to say, ‘Well, let’s keep schools closed for a long time.’ 

On the flip side of that … there's a positive here. We know how to reduce risk in schools.”

How do we reduce the risk of COVID-19 contagion in schools, especially K through 12?

“First, kids have lower risks and are less likely to catch it. They have less bad outcomes. So we're very fortunate there. But the proven risk reduction strategies work for all ages. ... Hospitals have largely gotten risks to health care workers under control by following the basics, things we've all heard so far. Wear a mask, wash hands frequently, and importantly, make sure you're doing the right things with the building. 

Let me start with buildings because that's something that we should start on right now. You have to prioritize bringing in more fresh outdoor air. That will depend on whether or not you have a mechanical system, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system, or you have a natural ventilation system, which means opening up the windows. You want to increase and maximize the amount of outdoor air. 

Any air that's recirculated, you want to move to higher efficiency filters, specifically a MERV-13 or higher. Then you can think about supplementing that with portable air purifiers. For fixed locations, we can add in places where you could put in plexiglass dividers. For example, at the reception desk or the cashier at the lunch counter. 

There's a lot we can actually be doing with our buildings, including making sure our bathroom exhaust fans are functioning properly. But these are strategies that you can jump into in late August, as you're preparing for school to come back. 

Schools need to start looking at their systems right now to understand what can and can't be done, and what kind of slick strategies can be put in place that don't cost a lot to bring in more fresh air.”

What about behavior, which is key? It's a lot tougher to make sure a 6 year old — versus a college student — wears a mask and keeps distance. So how do you do that?

“This is the greatest challenge. I have three kids. I fully understand that challenge. In the classroom, we do want to wear masks. On the school bus, wear a mask. In common areas and hallways, wear a mask. Wash hands frequently and watch your distance. The three W's: wear masks, wash hands, watch distance. 

That's going to be hard in terms of a compliance standpoint. We need to build in ‘mask breaks.’ Acknowledging that kids aren't going to be wearing these things is going to be really hard. How do you do that? Masks can come off when they're outside, have downtime, reading time only, a no-talking-time so they're not emitting as many aerosols. 

I also think we have to build in the difference between physical distancing and group distancing. Recognizing that compliance in a classroom for longer periods of time won't be as effective. You want to maintain physical distance and separate classes as much as possible. So, if you have a case in a class and it starts to spread through a class, it doesn't become explosive and spread through the entire school. We encourage group distancing as much as possible. 

… The most important recommendation is that schools have to establish a culture of health, safety and shared responsibility. We have to change the way we've done it. We know kids have a hard time complying with a lot of these things. We have to change the culture so that it becomes ‘this is what must be done.’ — if we're going to get this through to kids at school.”

Does there need to be a mix of distance learning and in-person learning, and just have fewer people on campus at any given time?

“I've seen those strategies, A-B days, A-B weeks. And I don't think they work for an obvious reason. Let's give the example of a teacher who has their own kids. Their child is in another school, maybe in that district or different district. What happens when their child has an off day and they're home? Well, that teacher won't be able to teach in the classroom she or he is working in, and it creates all these discontinuities that make it a real problem. 

I think the better approach is to put in these really stringent risk reduction strategies. Have teachers focus on in-classroom teaching. At the same time, we propose a strategy where, at the district level, a parallel remote learning option is happening. Recognizing there will be some students who are immunocompromised and won't be able to have in-class learning, some students will get sick, some will have to self-quarantine. And you're going to need a parallel remote learning option that's happening. 

We like the idea of having a reserve corps of teachers, newly retirees, or newly minted trainees who run these in-parallel, so that the in-classroom teachers can focus on in-classroom teaching. It won't be perfect because the lectures won't be perfectly synced. But nothing is perfect about this pandemic. It's all less bad options at this point. The idea being, if students are home, they do have a pathway to have some remote learning happening.”

Bottom line, you're saying if you can reduce the risk to an acceptable level, it's far better in terms of public health for students to be back in school. 

“Yeah, there's no question that the cost to not having kids in school is just massive and will have lifelong effects. I'm a parent. I understand the reluctance or the anxiety. At the same time, we have to place that against the value of in-person education and knowing what the science says in terms of risk reduction. That doesn't mean everybody just rushes back to school, business as usual, like 2019. 

2020 in schools has to look a lot different. A lot different means this culture of health, safety and shared responsibility. We should throw everything we have at this. We will need to layer the defenses, recognizing that there's no one strategy alone. We need to share that responsibility. There's no one person who should be responsible, not the principal, not the superintendent, parents, students, teachers, administrators. Everyone [is] involved. 

We need to limit transmission chains by encouraging group distancing so we don't have explosive headaches. We also need to be really flexible. Science is changing daily. Whatever plan we put in place today, it will likely be different or have to be modified come August and September. 

Last, we have to ensure equity here and recognize the immense challenges that some in society face, and the disproportion of burden that school closures put on many people."



  • Joseph Allen - Director of the Healthy Buildings program and Associate Professor at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health