Caution, creativity and public health guidelines could allow for safe in-person classes
If the current COVID-19 ratings hold in California’s color-coded system for coronavirus risk, more than half of the state’s K-12 students will be in districts allowed to resume in-person classes by the end of October.
Most schools that are considering reopening in-person class are just dipping their toes in the water with what’s being called hybrid or blended learning – meaning students would spend part of their week in classrooms and part learning remotely at home.
The key, he said, is to move carefully and follow public health guidelines.
“It’s nice way of testing it out to see how this might work. We can learn from it,” Blumberg said. “It’s also safer. If schools come back all at once, we could have explosive COVID-19 transmissions.”
One of the strengths of a hybrid learning approach is that it recognizes the continuing dangers of COVID-19.
“We don’t want to just go back to business as usual. Every time we’ve done that with this virus, we had another big spike in transmission of the disease,” Blumberg said. “These hybrid models are new ways of doing something. We’re in unprecedented times and we need to be creative in addressing some of the challenges.”
How would hybrid learning work?
Schools and districts are considering a range of hybrid models – all have a key goal of ensuring that the number of students on campus is small. Those include:
- Alternating days. Students would be grouped and spend a few days on campus and a few days learning at home. The groups would be staggered, so, for instance, an elementary school might have grades K-3 come to class Mondays and Wednesdays, while grades 4-6 attend Tuesdays and Thursdays.
- Alternating weeks. Half of a school’s students would attend school four full days one week while the other half learns from home. The next week, they would swap who comes to campus and who learns remotely. All would have one day each week learning at home.
- Alternating half days. Half of the students would attend school in the morning and the other half would come in the afternoon.
— Dean Blumberg
“I think there will continue to be a need for remote learning if we want to keep our children and our teachers safe,” Blumberg said. “These models mean there would be less exposure for everyone, but kids would still have some interaction with other kids, and that’s important. School is not just about learning math and history, it’s also about learning social interactions.”
Following health guidelines is crucial
“It’s important that we don’t open schools in any way until COVID-19 transmissions are controlled in a community,” Blumberg said. “If anyone opens too early, gathering children in classrooms, even in these hybrid models, is going to increase the cases among children, and they will spread COVID-19 to their families who could then bring it into the community.”
Blumberg’s advice to schools is also what many public health departments are advising:
- Keep classes small.
- Keep children isolated in small groups and have them stay in one classroom.
- Prevent those small groups of students from mingling with other kids at recess or in the cafeteria. Each group should have separate recess and mealtimes.
- Be sure to instruct students, and everyone at the school, on the proper use of masks.
- Be flexible and prepared to shut down if there is an outbreak.
“I hope schools will enforce social distancing and universal masking for everyone – teachers, administrators, staff and children,” Blumberg said. “That’s the only way schools can stay open.”
He also said school officials should be aware of the danger to teachers.
“Those are adults who have a higher risk, in some cases, a much higher risk, of both getting sick and having severe cases. Do we want to do that to teachers?” Blumberg said. “There is a danger to whole communities, because outbreaks may be amplified in schools, as we’re seeing in some states now.”
The uncertainty of fall, school planning and COVID-19
California health officials said in early October that the schools that have resumed in-person classes have not caused any large spikes in COVID-19 cases. But outside California, high schools and elementary schools have caused some severe outbreaks. Those are separate from colleges in California and across the country, which have become hotspots for the virus and major drivers behind the rise in cases in the U.S.
— Dean Blumberg
In addition, flu season is coming. Colder fall and winter temperatures will drive people inside where infections are more likely to occur. And case counts in some California counties are no longer dropping and they are rising in others.
All of this means schools must be watchful and flexible, Blumberg said.
“After any changes are made that decrease social distancing, it will be important to follow students and others through one or two incubation periods, plus allow for a lag in reporting. That mean they should follow them closely for, say, 2-4 weeks to see if there are enhanced transmissions,” Blumberg said. “If there are, some schools will have to rethink what they’re doing and consider dialing things back. And if there is no increased transmission after the last set of changes, additional changes can safely be considered.”
An analogy for experimenting with hybrid learning comes from some of the pro sports leagues that set up bubbles or protocols, made mistakes, then adjusted to have fewer COVID-19 transmissions.
“Schools and health officials are like everyone else, they’re learning as they go along,” Blumberg said. “Hopefully, they’ll adjust if they need to. Some people will roll their eyes and complain that the guidance has changed again. But that’s how science works. That’s how life works. You learn and you give better guidance.”
He said he hopes one piece of guidance does not change
“The most important thing,” Blumberg said, “to do what keeps students, teachers and their families safe.”