The Science Behind School Reopenings Plans May Not Work In Practice


More than a dozen schools in Connecticut have gone remote in recent days as COVID-19 outbreaks flared up. Public health officials and school administrators spent the summer trying to craft a plan that would avoid shutdowns and keep students in school as long as possible. Some schools seem set on a plan to stay open even if their plans don’t end up working out. 

Dr. Beth Thielen explains that those plans are an educated guess at best. 

“We don’t really know exactly what levels of community transmission are going to do in the community,” she said.

Thielen studies and practices care for infectious disease in children. She’s an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Univerisity of Minnesota Medical School Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology. 

The metrics she’s referring to are levels set by the Connecticut Department of Education. 

This summer, the department required districts to develop three models of learning: in-person, hybrid, and fully remote. Districts re-examine which model to use on a given day based on weekly updates on the number of infections in a county.

And although the country and state may have gotten pretty used to this pandemic for the last six months, Thielen has a reminder as to how far even the best public health data goes. 

“This is the first time we’ve experienced COVID,” Thielen said, “and we make measurements of what it’s going to behave like but ultimately we need to collect the data in real time.”

To that end, Thielen suspects more students might head back to remote schooling soon.

Many schools started under a hybrid model this month. And the way Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, sees it, the schools also consider the hybrid model temporary, with the hope that they will fully return to the classroom soon enough.

“The majority of schools want to bring in as many students as they possibly can,” Rabinowitz said. “They started with hybrid, they wanted to look at trend data and see community permeation of COVID-19. If the permeation is low, they are definitely gonna open in full.”   

Rabinowitz said many districts have set their sights on October 1st or November 1st to have as many students as possible back in person.

But that idea is based on the assumption that the hybrid model would prove effective. And that’s where the reminder comes in: this is the first time public health officials have experienced COVID. Thielen says the plans only theoretically reduce risk, and numbers of how much risk is acceptable is relatively arbitrary. 

“They’re guidelines to help people implement school re-openings and give them benchmarks to go off of,” Theilen said, “but I think there’s a very real possibility we need to change course when we see how those numbers behave in the real world.” 

Theilen’s less worried about young kids getting sick and more about how they might spread the virus to family members and the community. Data and her experience show a very small amount of infected children getting severely ill.

As for the schools, Rabinowitz said that the need to change course may not be second nature to teachers, but public health officials have had a lesson or two for her this past summer. 

“I’ve learned not to fall in love with a plan as the plan is and to know that I may have to change that plan at any given moment,” Rabinowitz said.

As of Friday, more than a dozen schools in the state had gone fully remote. How long that remote learning will last is, of course, another part of this experiment. 

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali covers the Naugatuck River Valley for Connecticut Public Radio. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.

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