President Biden has made reopening K-12 schools as one of his top priorities for the first 100 days of his administration, or by the end of April. With COVID-19 vaccinations rolling out across the country, there’s hope that that will happen.
But there is also a sense of added urgency. New strains of the coronavirus are emerging, and vaccine distributions and administrations have run into hiccups.
“We are in a race right now between vaccine distribution and these variants becoming more common,” says Asaf Bitton, a physician, public health researcher, and executive director of Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation.
Still, Bitton remains cautiously optimistic about Biden’s timetable for returning to schools. Since last spring, Ariadne Labs, in partnership with The Learning Accelerator and the One8 Foundation, created a set of health and safety guidance and toolkits to help school leaders make informed choices about reopening. Couple that with the continued vaccination efforts, along with an assist from warmer weather, and he believes there’s a good chance of “getting a few good months of in-person learning in” later this spring.
Bitton joins us on the EdSurge Podcast this week to discuss current vaccination efforts, what we know about the new coronavirus strains, and how these factors will shape the likelihood of school reopening this year.
Below are highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview on this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.
EdSurge: What do we know much so far about the new variants of the virus—and whether or not children and young people may be more susceptible to them?
Bitton: There are two main clusters of variants—one in the United Kingdom and the other in South Africa. The British one is important because it could be 30 or even 50 percent more transmissible than the main strains floating around in the U.S. And that means that more people per interaction will get the virus. Now, whether the virus itself is more lethal, it’s not clear. There are early reports that the British variant is no more severe or lethal, but it just causes more harm because of more accumulated infections.
The South African variant is also more transmissible. It appears to likely be more severe, and it has one other problem, which makes us quite nervous. Unlike the British variants, it appears to be less responsive to some of our therapies, like monoclonal antibodies… There’s good early evidence that the British variants are covered by the vaccines. The South African variants have induced less of an antibody response in people who are vaccinated, but still probably enough antibodies to protect us.
What does that mean for schools?
We will be spending a lot of time this spring and summer thinking and talking about the variants. It’s likely that the British variant, and maybe but less likely that the South African variant, will be the dominant strain in the U.S. by the spring. This pushes the need for us to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
While we may have plateaued and are starting to see a fall in cases across the U.S., that could turn right back around if these new strains take hold and have a big impact on schools. In the U.K., they’re talking about closing schools until Easter because of the transmissibility of these variants.
Now, if we can vaccinate enough people to prevent these strains, or stretch it out a little bit longer so that they don’t become the dominant strain, we have a much better chance of continuing the trend of falling cases. And to everybody’s most important question: “When do we get back to normal or normal-ish?” We have a chance at doing much more in-person schooling next fall, or maybe even late spring.
President Biden has said that he wants to reopen schools within a hundred days of his administration, which would be by the end of April. Based on current vaccination efforts so far, is that feasible?
I think it is for most communities. We’re entering the phases soon with vaccine distribution in which teachers and other essential frontline personnel will be getting the vaccine, in February and March, and I really encourage people to get the vaccine… Getting it to the people who need it most from the point of view of illness and age, as well as exposure risk—like teachers and bus drivers and other frontline personnel—is critical and a key part of enabling reopening schools.
There’s another part of this that’s really important. This virus, like most coronaviruses, spreads more efficiently in the winter, in dry, colder air… By April, the change in weather, plus continued drive toward vaccination, plus people’s continued need to take masking and distancing seriously, plus a more coordinated federal and state response… all these are convergent factors that should—unless the variants beat us to it—continue to drive cases downward.
So you’re going to have more people who are vaccinated. You’re probably going to have lower caseloads, and we now know the playbook on how to generally have safe school openings. I think educators and education leaders need to watch the data closely, but be thinking about getting a few good months of in-person learning in. Maybe they do school activities during parts of the summer to try to make up for lost learning. We’ve lost so much last year, and I think we need to think expansively to try to regain some of that back.
What’s the biggest hurdle to getting vaccines to educators?
We do not have one centralized vaccine distribution delivery plan. I’m not even sure one could say we have 50… This is a very complex space right now where you have some states jetting ahead and doing a really good job with their allocated vaccine doses. But not everyone is not on the same timeline. We’re seeing a classic American heterogeneous, highly variable, bright spots and less than bright spots kind of situation.
Education leaders need to help their staff find the best ways to get vaccinated, which are going to be different in different states. Some states may send you to stadiums to get vaccinated; in others, it might be faster and easier through primary care; others may be through local public health supports. People need to be patient, but also urgently focused on finding a multiplicity of ways to get this vaccine.
What gives you hope and optimism that we are going to get through this without any major setbacks or surprises?
We have accomplished as a society an amazing feat of building, testing and now delivering vaccines that are among the best ever in terms of their efficacy. And we did that in less than 11 months. The vaccine rollout is clunky and annoying, yes, but we’re vaccinating at rates that are comparable to only a couple of other countries in the world right now. We have wind in our sails—a sense of coordination behind a playbook around what works and what’s safe for in-person schooling. And I think we have now understood how important in-person schooling is for students and educators—how critical it is for communities, parents, the economy and nutritional health and mental health.
We have all these strong currents in the right direction, with effective vaccines to get us to our common goal, which is to have our kids and our educators walk into schools at some point next fall. To say: “We’re back. We’re doing this together. School is in.” I don’t think you’re ever going to see kids and teachers so excited to just have a regular boring school day.
Hear more on the full episode of this week’s podcast. Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.