Benjamin P. Linas, an epidemiologist, writes in VOX that both blue and red states are doing the wrong things about the pandemic. The blue states are too quick to close down schools and the red states are too quick to keep them open without proper safety measures. The Trump administration has provided no guidance at all and left it to states to craft their own responses, which mostly fall along partisan lines.

He describes a plan that he hopes the new Biden administration will adopt that will both contain the pandemic and enable schools to be open for in-person instruction.

Linas offers a plan that he hopes will be the basis for a new approach:

Our current political leaders are failing to provide a clear, national plan for reopening America’s schools. The incoming Biden-Harris administration has announced that it will provide new funds and guidance, but details have not yet emerged. Below are four essential elements for such a plan. 

1) Clear guidance for when and how to open (and close) schools

Such guidance includes two components. One is reasonable, evidence-based thresholds for opening and closing our schools. The CDC has such guidance, but it is not clear how the thresholds were chosen. Further, the guidance has no bite. 

At no time has the CDC said that districts may not open above a given threshold. They simply “advise caution” or “reconsideration” of current policy. We need strong federal action to prevent schools from opening when Covid-19 is not yet controlled in their communities. We also need clear and effective guidance for when schools should be open. 

Second is making new strategy that envisions schools as one part of a larger public health policy. No district should employ school closures as the first intervention when Covid-19 cases rise. In a Covid-19 crisis, it may be necessary to close schools, but if so, then the school closures must be one component of a larger strategy that seeks to generally reduce mobility and social interaction, including restrictions on activities such as indoor dining, bars, gyms, and other places that we know Covid-19 is being transmitted.

2) Clear guidance for distancing in schools 

While 6 feet has become the default stance on appropriate distancing from others in most of the US, 6-foot distance requirements greatly limit the ability of public schools to bring all students back full-time. The reality is, in many public school districts, if we insist on all students being 6 feet apart at all times, many districts simply will not have the space (and thus not really be able to bring all kids back to school full-time until there is an effective, widely distributed vaccine). That means that there is a very realistic scenario in which even in 2021 schools will need to use a hybrid instructional model. 

Globally, the WHO identifies 1 meter (about 3.3 feet) as a minimum for distance from others. We need data-driven guidance for situations in which it is acceptable to distance less than 6 feet in educational settings. 

Fortunately, data does exist to help us gauge the risk of Covid-19 transmission with contact of various distances. Perhaps, with quiet activity and good air flow and all students reliably in masks, a 4-foot distance might be acceptable. Covid-19 is always a question of risk and benefit. The benefit of being back in school full-time is clear. What are the real risks of occasionally being 4 to 5 feet apart during the school day if everyone is wearing masks?

3) Strong mask mandates at the federal, state, district, and school levels 

Every message from every person of authority needs to reiterate the civic duty to wear a mask in public. Currently, many states leave masking mandates up to districts. This needs to change. People do not have a right to walk down the street naked, and almost every school district has a definition of clothing that is not appropriate to wear in school. Likewise, people do not have a right to have a naked face in school during this viral pandemic, and not wearing a mask is at least as inappropriate as wearing short shorts.

4) Robust testing and contact tracing 

It’s critical that whenever any child develops symptoms consistent with Covid-19, it is fast, easy, and free to obtain testing. It is not possible for parents to keep their child out of school for many days every time that child develops a new runny nose, or winter cough. Symptomatic testing is important to make it possible to stay in school. 

The role for asymptomatic screening is more complex. Routinely screening all members of the community holds promise as a strategy to identify and quarantine asymptomatic cases that may otherwise come to school. But we do not currently have the infrastructure or resources to make this happen. And in any case, the real pillars of safe school operation are community control, masks, and distancing. We cannot make asymptomatic screening a prerequisite to opening schools, because if we do, we will not be able to reopen.

This is what a plan to reopen looks like, but implementing it requires courageous leadership at the federal and state levels. With this plan in place, however, America can open its schools, keep students and teachers healthy, and contribute to a larger public health strategy to end the Covid-19 epidemic.