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Are Elementary Schools Safe for Students in the Pandemic?

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Masked child going back to elementary school

With all the new preventive protocols happening in elementary schools, there is an illusion of safety. These protocols will reduce some of the risk; however, parents, teachers, and district officials should realize that there is no way any school can eliminate all risk. The most important factor in bringing safety to elementary schools is lowering the prevalence of Covid-19 in the community. 

Schools are doing their best to mitigate the risk. Options for virtual schooling will reduce the number of students attending in-person classes, and thus, allow for more social distance. Temperatures will be checked at the bus and the entrance. Anybody with symptoms will be sent home. Recesses will be staggered. Sanitizers will be ubiquitous. Plexiglass or other protective barriers will be put up between desks. Some grades may be sequestered in their rooms as learning pods. But new scientific research is showing that every line in our schools’ defenses has weaknesses.

Defense weaknesses

First off, temperature checks at the bus and at the school will not catch everyone who is sick. Temperature checks assume that those infected have fevers, which often fails to appear in mild symptomatic cases and asymptomatic cases. Most children appear to have mild symptoms.

Having mild symptoms does not equate to being unable to transmit the virus. An investigation reported in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics noted that of children’s infections in Korea found, out of 91 children testing positive for the Covid-19 viruses, only 8.5% of the cases had recognized symptoms at the time of diagnosis and 22% stayed asymptomatic throughout the entire time. The rest had unrecognized symptoms before diagnosis or developed symptoms after diagnosis. This delayed development of symptoms meant that children infected with Covid-19 were shedding the virus before they even had symptoms.

Even more worrying, despite many children showing few symptoms, virus shedding in the upper respiratory tract was seen to occur for a median duration of 17.6 days. That timeframe would allow one infected child to transmit the virus to other children for almost three weeks. Infected children are likely to slip through school doors and become silent carriers of the virus. 

Virus transmission

More research is still needed to find out exactly how easily children transmit the virus. Some studies have shown that children are half as likely to be infected as adults. However, in the United States, there have already been instances of super-spreader events with children. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report from July 31st investigated such an event at a summer camp in Georgia. After just one week, 76% of the 363 campers tested came back positive. 51% of those aged 6-10 became infected. The CDC report stated that some of the reasons the super-spreader event occurred were that not everyone wore masks, there was a lot of singing and cheering, and there was poor ventilation in the cabins. Elementary schools can have a lot of singing and cheering. Often kids may not be required to wear masks, and unfortunately poor ventilation is common.

The virus is also much more infectious than we had previously thought. According to the British Medical Journal, in July 239 scientists signed an open letter “appealing to the medical community and relevant national and international bodies to [recognize] the potential for airborne spread of Covid-19.” The accumulated research suggests that normal respiratory activities create a spectrum of sizes, from droplets to aerosols. Any forceful activity, e.g., singing, talking loudly, coughing, or heavy breathing, can dislodge respiratory particles of various sizes, possibly contaminated with virus particles. The smallest droplets, aerosols, can stay suspended in the air for a longer period of time. 

Aerosol droplets

Aerosol droplets will have fewer virus particles because they are smaller, but they can move in air drafts and spread over the whole room. Infection rates will largely be dependent upon exposure length of time and concentration. In school classrooms, children stay next to each other for hours at a time. In order to remove these aerosol droplets, . Providing proper air exchange with the outside is a problem in many schools, and often classrooms rely on recycled air instead, which will provide more aerosol spread. When classrooms become saturated with aerosols, the risk of a super-spreader event is very high.

In an aerosol-saturated classroom, face masks won’t stop the spread. The cloth masks that students wear are designed to reduce the exhalation of larger droplets; thus, the speed of the droplets. They are not designed to prevent aerosols from entering through the masks and into the respiratory tracts. Aerosols are much smaller than the pores of normal cloth masks.

Plexiglass or other partitions will not stop aerosol spread either. They act as sneeze guards and prevent larger droplets from leaving the student’s area. However, the smaller aerosol droplets will float over the barriers and still stay in the air, just like a spray of perfume that eventually permeates throughout the whole room despite any barriers.


Assuming that adequate ventilation is in place in schools, elementary school students are notorious for touching objects, desks, faces, and others. Sanitization of the desks, tables, and chairs will likely be required several times a day, particularly if classrooms are switched. This sanitization work is going to ultimately fall on the teachers. That is a big responsibility.

Victoria Estes, a fifth grade teacher in Michigan described the responsibility of putting on multiple hats and doing the teaching, sanitizing and everything else as overwhelming. 

“There’s so many different things that go on in a classroom on a daily basis and they want us to sanitize. But then they’re telling us, you’ve got to make sure you have goggles on and you have a coat on and you have to have gloves on and you have to have a face shield and a mask. I’m like, where are you going to find the time to do this?”

Estes says in the higher grades of her school, the teachers are required to wipe down the desks during each break between classes, which is only five minutes. She is not sure how that would even be possible.   

The feasibility of sanitizing multiple times a day is questionable. Estes remembers times before Covid-19 was around when it was cleaning day; the students and she would wipe down the dust with Lysol wipes. They had to make sure the doors were open because some people would have allergic reactions to the smell. Some students had such strong reactions that she couldn’t do it while they were around. For Estes herself, anything scented can be a trigger for a significant allergic reaction. Some students could get asthma just from the smell of the alcohol wipes. The protocols for sanitization don’t take into consideration the health problems caused by the same sanitization.

Completely sanitizing all the desks throughout the day may be more of a dream than a practical possibility. 

Social Distancing

Social distancing is another problematic issue. Outside the classrooms, students will use playgrounds or at least run around in recess. They will also likely go into bathrooms unsupervised, which leads to the question about whether students of elementary age actually have the self-discipline to social distance. It is a natural inclination for elementary age kids to want to meet, talk to, and touch each other. In order to keep students away, lunch aides, teachers, and other faculty will constantly have to be ordering students to comply with the regulations. 

Sarah Stirdavant, a kindergarten teacher, says that she understands why kids need to socially distance. At the same time she’s having a hard time implementing it because of the negative impact on social and emotional development resulting from forcing social distancing. 

“They’re rambunctious little people, and they don’t like to stay away from each other. They like to interact with each other. They want to touch and explore and be around each other because that’s how kids learn. With all this social distancing we’re enforcing… it’s definitely taking away from that, from students learning from each other and exploring each other.” 

For elementary schools to strictly enforce social distancing of kindergarten to 4th-grade kids, teachers will need to put their compassion and desire for their children’s social development on the back burner. But they’re kids. Breaking social distancing is part of their nature, and they will inevitably break the rules several times a day. The strict enforcement of these rules will then largely depend upon who is supervising. Some of the school faculty may be very strict; but, there also will be those who are lax in the enforcement.

Viral spread

Combining the possibility of asymptomatic spread, the virus’s airborne nature, the infeasibility of perpetually disinfecting the classroom, and the inevitable breaks in social distancing, the likelihood of children transmitting to other children at school is very high. Although further research is needed on the long-term effects of Covid-19 on children, it does appear that the majority of Covid-19 cases in children are mild. The main problem with school outbreaks is not the effects on the children themselves, but that the children can and will spread the virus to other people who are more susceptible to its harmful effects: their family, bus drivers, and school faculty. 

Children could come home with the virus, unbeknownst to them, and infect their parents or grandparents. They could literally be responsible for putting people into a hospital and possibly the grave. This possibility is a huge burden of responsibility, which is counter to the philosophy of education. In schools, children are taught that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them. However, in this pandemic, one mistake could cause someone to die. 

Mental and emotional impact

As adults, we often make assumptions that our children are innocent and do not think about or even understand the seriousness of life or, in our present situation, the pandemic. However, children are prone to feeling that they are responsible for traumatic events that are actually outside of their control. A classic example of this is divorce, in which children often blame themselves for causing. The emotional pain caused by feeling responsible for traumatic events can lead to emotional problems and mental illness in the future. Throw Covid-19 into the mix and you have a ticking mental-health time bomb. If the child learns that they brought Covid-19 home from school and put someone in the hospital, they could be mentally scarred for the rest of their life.

Elementary schools need to be safe not only for children’s health but for their minds as well. Social distancing is important, but children will fail to comply at times because of their immaturity and short attention spans. The school’s defense against Covid-19 should not rely upon elementary school students conforming to social distancing requirements. It would be an unfair burden of responsibility on our children and it would have the potential to cause detrimental effects to mental health. 

Safest way forward

The safest way for elementary schools to reopen, for both the physical health and mental health of the children, is probably with small class-size learning pods. In these small classes, children will only interact with their immediate peers and a teacher. Social distancing isn’t as important as small learning pods. If there is a Covid-19 infection, pods can contain the virus rather than spread it to the school at large. For many schools, though, this unfortunately may not be possible due to staff shortages.

For larger class sizes, nothing elementary schools do ensures that outbreaks will not happen. Temperature checks, proper ventilation, sanitization, and social distancing measures will help to reduce risks, but they cannot eliminate all risk. If a Covid-positive student goes into school, the potential for an outbreak will still be there. Thus, the best way to safely get our elementary students back in school in good health and in good mental health is for the community to work together to prevent Covid-19 from circulating inside the community. Less community spread will mean less risk at schools. 

Accordingly, schools around the country should continue to push the message that it is adults who need to wear their masks, wash their hands, and maintain social distancing. Adults https://fuconomy.com/articles/teaching-staff-shortages/will help their kids get back to learning. The burden is on all of us, not just our kids.

Read more on how Covid-19 is impacting schools with staff shortages poor ventilation potentially causing super-spreader events, and social distancing difficulties.