Is there any science behind alternating school attendance?
June 28, 2020 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Most of the proposals I have seen for reopening schools after the pandemic call for some kind of cohort or alternate attendance plan. I’m struggling to understand any science behind why this might actually be safer. More inside.

So, the plan I just saw from Alberta (for example) was that half the kids would go on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday the school will be closed for a deep clean, and Thursday/Friday the second half would go. The idea would be that the smaller class sizes will better accommodate social distancing.

However, when you factor in where the kids would be going on the days they are not in school, I’m not understanding why ‘health officials’ would actually recommend this plan. In their off days, kids would have four choices: a parent who is able to stay home, a part-time daycare situation should that be available, a nanny share or other ad hoc/unlicensed child care situation, or an elderly at risk grandparent who is being recruited because there is no other choice. The 15 kids in my child’s ‘cohort’ would therefore be returning to school each with possibly dozens of germ vector points they picked up on their off day. Wouldn’t it be safer to have a single, daily class, even if it was with a slightly bigger group?

I’m prepared for the answer to be ‘yes, it would be safer, but they are cheap and don’t want to pay extra teachers to run smaller classes’ and I’m also prepared for the answer to be ‘old, rich people with stay at home wives who did all the childcare when their now-grown children were small are making this policy and it literally has never crossed their minds that some households might have (like mine) only one parent and cannot willingly sacrifice an adult to stay home.’ But I am curious if there actually is something I am missing here about these ‘cohort’ ideas. Is there actually a reason this would be safer, and my concern about my own childcare situation is preventing me from seeing it?
posted by ficbot to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
it's based on the idea that the only thing they can control is the population density in the classroom. What kids do after school, and who they meet with, and what their daycare situation is, are all factors beyond the school's control (and that is true during non-pandemic times as well; I don't think the options you list are different during non-pandemic times. In the US school's over at ~3 and parent's don't get home til ~6. Everyone needs some kind of afterschool care for small kids.)

Fewer kids in a classroom = a little more physical distance between them for the hours they spend in the classroom, so they breathe in a few fewer germs from each other during those enclosed periods (which are the periods that are the most concerning, as everything is now pointing to physically close, temporally extended, indoor contact being how the virus is spread.) That's all.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:03 AM on June 28 [13 favorites]


In my district, the expectation is that on the “off” days, the kids stay at home and learn remotely.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:05 AM on June 28 [7 favorites]


The idea is to reduce density, if I understand it correctly. Yes, the kids will be around others on their days off. The fact of the matter is there is simply no good way to handle this. However, if the class sizes are significantly smaller, it will become easier for kids to distance from each other in the classroom. The kids will also be in smaller groups on their days off, making it easier still to distance.

Kids are germ factories and people are irresponsible. They’re going to be around each other and grandma and nanny and in childcare in normal times; having full classes when kids go home to grandma at the end of the day in the age of covid is a recipe for disaster. This is the best they have in an unprecedented situation.

But I may be missing something so I’m interested in seeing what the other posters say.
posted by Amy93 at 8:05 AM on June 28 [4 favorites]


(That said, the idea that deep-cleaning is going to do anything to protect re COVID is wrongheaded, based on theories that we now know are incorrect, and is a waste of badly needed resources of time, money, planning and personnel.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:08 AM on June 28 [21 favorites]


In 2/3 scenarios you've got there, you're still reducing # of contacts the child is having. In the third (nanny share/daycare) in some cases, the # of contacts still might be reduced, particularly if the nanny share or daycare is with kids who are on the same schedule.

There are also likely issues beyond # of teachers (which, if every district needs double the number of teachers, won't be possible): transportation issues- the school might not have enough busses to get every kid there every day with social distancing (again, the entire world's school bus fleet can't quadruple overnight) , space issues in the building, etc.

Honestly, though, I think at least some school officials know a hybrid system is not going to fix all of the problems with remote learning, but the idea is that for at least some families it'll be an improvement (or at least, will solve more problems then they cause on balance).
posted by damayanti at 8:08 AM on June 28 [2 favorites]


It seems pretty clear that the safest thing for schools to do would be some type of cohort model but full time, including isolation services and instruction for those who may be exposed. Which is of course is another way of saying 'smaller class sizes, lower student-teacher ratios, differentiation by need and more physical space for each child' - things that are generally accepted to be good for kids, but not done for cost reasons. So I'll take the 'that's too much change to get done in a summer, especially since it's much more costly ' argument.

Realistically this is all going to be a huge mess. Even within the cohort model there are different options - morning kids vs afternoon kids, split within a week, two weeks per month at school and two weeks at home, etc. Any positive tests - cohort or not - may mean 2 weeks at home for every child in the cohort.

Going to a single large class size would basically mean violating best practices (or legal requirements, depending on the area) on social distancing and group size and that's a hard thing for a government entity to do. The childcare aspect is - as you mention - hugely problematic, but I don't think that the cohort models necessarily come out of a place of unexamined privilege. The school can't control what the kids do outside of school even with a full class size (do they have after school care? do they visit their grandparents on the weekend? do their parents work weekends or nights? do they have siblings at other schools with different policies?)

All the schools can control on their own is density and exposure while they're at school, so that's what they're controlling. Anything more really has to come as a coordinated plan from the government as a whole.
posted by true at 8:10 AM on June 28 [5 favorites]


Yeah, they did this in the Netherlands.

The idea is as others said above that before the school opening, kids are already staying at home so no new problem is being introduced there. All schools can do is control the class size. Also teachers stay with their class. These factors make contact tracing a bit easier should an outbreak develop.
posted by vacapinta at 8:13 AM on June 28 [2 favorites]


In Illinois the state board of education has recommended against alternating attendance for exactly the reasons you discuss:

"Blended remote learning will likely increase the rate of infection and the demand for center- based and non-relative care, increasing the number of different people that children are in contact with each week and, thereby, their probability of exposure to the virus." (from here, p. 17)

So yeah, I think the answer is, yes, it would be safer to just hire more teachers and go to school every day, but no, we don't have the political will to prioritize safety over money. Sucks :(
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:24 AM on June 28 [7 favorites]


Another major issue with having smaller classes that attend all the time is space--most schools do not have double the classrooms to expand into even if they hired extra teachers.
posted by booky at 8:46 AM on June 28 [12 favorites]


As vacapinta already mentioned, this policy was implemented (for ages 4-12) in the Netherlands in te first week of May, as a first step in reopening the schools. As this did not give a rise in new cases, the policy was shifted to a normal school schedule from the beginning of June. Until now there hasn't been an increase in cases again, so it seems to work. One of the reasons given by the Dutch public health autorities (sorry no link to the study) was that from their research they found that childeren in that age group are not often infected an when it happend it was mostly by parent-chlid transmission.
posted by PaulZ at 9:00 AM on June 28 [1 favorite]


The more crowded a room the higher the viral load. The higher the viral load the greater the chance of getting sick and of being sicker when you do get it.

So a classroom with fifteen kids for two days is less likely to result in infections than a classroom with thirty kids for one day. The classroom with thirty kids is not double the risk, but exponential because if one kid has it in the classroom of fifteen maybe nobody else will get it. But in the classroom of thirty if one kid gives it to another kid the next iteration is a probable four infections, which can quickly turn into all thirty kids becoming carriers. You quickly reach the point where anyone spending more than twenty minutes in that classroom is going to get it.

From the point of view of the school the class with fifteen kids is a much better bet than the class of thirty kids. An even better bet than a classroom with fifteen kids is a gathering of fifteen kids outdoors with lots of spare around them, so teaching outside as much and as long as possible will make a substantial difference. Of course weather will make this difficult. It's hard to teach the test in the rain when many of your students don't own and can't afford rain gear. If I were a principal I'd be looking into renting pavilions to cover my playing field and encouraging a curriculum based on nature walks, or the study or architecture with as many walking field trips as can be justified.

The school has a number of mandates, and helping parents figure out what to do outside of school hours to provide daycare is not one of them. For some parents two days of school will make the situation more manageable than no school. For other parents it will make it harder because of logistics and now not wanting to support a full time paid caretaker who only works three days.

The best answer to your question is "Whatcha got that is better?" And I'm serious. If you can come up with alternatives there are a lot of people interested in hearing them.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:06 AM on June 28 [2 favorites]


Admiral Haddock, I think this ‘expectation’ you mention is exactly the problem. I can stay home right now because I’m a teacher and don’t work in the summer. Otherwise, I can’t stay home. A schedule where my own kid only goes two days a week is not sustainable for me because I am the only parent. There isn’t an adult who can sacrifice their work to stay home.

I do have other ideas, but they won’t do them because the bureaucracy of public school moves too slowly. But...we have a ton of currently unemployed substitute teachers here. I don’t see why we can’t be renting condo party rooms and community centre meeting rooms and assigning some kids to one of them to teach, temporarily, in a smaller class.
posted by ficbot at 9:12 AM on June 28 [7 favorites]


What's been talked about for alternating models on some of the local parent and city planning lists I'm on (in Cambridge, MA, so many of whom are in hospital, research, biotech, pharma, and public health settings) has been to have half the kids in any given classroom be a cohort (Cohort A) that attends school in person four out of five days per week (e.g., M-Th). The other half of the class (Cohort B) learns remotely for M-Th. On Friday there's no one in the school and all school is remote. The next week, Cohort B attends in person M-Th while Cohort A learns remotely. Again, no one in the school physically on Friday.

The split cohorts helps to maintain better physical distancing while physically together. Additionally, the 4+1 day split with alternating weeks gives, for instance, kids within Cohort A 10 days apart from each other for symptoms to show before they come together again. So if someone in Cohort A is exposed on the Thursday of their in person schooling, they have until two following Mondays to see if symptoms arise. It also puts three days between any cohort's interaction with physical surfaces that might harbor the virus. (Though there is now more focus on improving air filtration systems than on deep cleaning, again given northeast climate reality of being indoors.)

All models assume there is some cohort, Cohort C, that is always learning remotely due to higher risk or personal choice.

Children would rotate in and out of physical classrooms during the day as needed, instead of teachers, because adults have been shown to be better carriers and spreaders. (Data on teens is more vague.) So teachers are limited to one physical space for the whole week. This model breaks down a bit as kids get older and split into different electives, for instance a biology lab and a robotics shop and an art studio mean moving around more, and splintering from your cohort.

Where all these models get tricky is what happens when someone tests positive or exhibits symptoms. In places where we have cold and flu season, and those symptoms can look like covid19, what then? It's even trickier if it's a teacher who needs to stay home. The Plan B for most of the models I've heard of is simply: Move all learning online again.

All that said, I think most of the hard choices around starting up schooling in the US are essentially because our political loans are all coming due at the same time. We have overloaded our education system to be a basic needs delivery system (shelter, food, laundry, health clinics, physical safety -- mini cities really) and we are loathe to withhold that for any reason for long. Schools are treading a very difficult line in keeping kids "safe" because in the US kids are vulnerable from so many different directions at once.

Here is further reading on school re-openings:
Harvard Medical School - Health Podcast, Dr. Jha on reopening schools (scroll to page bottom for "Podcast Coronavirus Update)
Harvard T. H. Chan School for Public Health - Risk Reduction Strategies on Opening Schools
Science Magazine - Should schools reopen? Kids' role in pandemic still a mystery
posted by cocoagirl at 9:28 AM on June 28 [14 favorites]


Ficbot, I suspect we’ll (collectively) be doing something like that, just privately...not necessarily as part of the district. Which is a Whole Other Issue but will hopefully help parents like us who can’t manage distance learning on off-days.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:28 AM on June 28


But...we have a ton of currently unemployed substitute teachers here. I don’t see why we can’t be renting
We don't have the political will or interest to do this. There may be small pockets where local governments can get things together and make this happen, but by and large, we don't have the infrastructural support or willpower to make these things happen on a large scale. This is what living in a failed state looks like.
posted by k8lin at 9:42 AM on June 28 [7 favorites]


And if we seriously reduced class sizes by half, we’d need to have twice the teachers-I know where I live, there aren’t many teachers who can’t find jobs, let alone twice the teachers we currently have (and that’s not even talking about the space needed).
posted by purenitrous at 9:51 AM on June 28 [1 favorite]


One "plan" I have heard cannibalizes all the middle school and high school buildings and turns them into low-density K-5 schools, and the older kids do remote learning full-time.

It leaves the bus costs no higher, if not lower, but it doubles the number of K-5 teachers needed.

This has the advantage of not making parents find half-time childcare or half-time work, but it means every damn kid age 12 or higher can be a latchkey kid again.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:20 AM on June 28 [3 favorites]


I know that Alberta is in a different ideological realm right now vis a vis public education, but I can tell you how things went in BC for June when we re-opened schools and parents had the option to send their kids back to school.

In elementary schools, students were in 1 of 4 cohorts:
A: Went to school two days a week (say Mondays and Wednesdays) for shortened hours (say 9 am to 2 pm)
B: Went to school two days a week (say Tuesdays and Thursdays) for shortened hours (say 9 am to 2 pm)
ESW: Children of essential service workers, went to school every day, for normal times (say 8:40 am to 2:40 pm)
C: Continued with remote learning at home.

Middle and high schools were operating with about 20% attendance (one day a week of in-class learning). Again provisions were made so that students that needed extra support (for social, academic, family situation or socio-economic reasons) could attend multiple days a week.

Teachers were classified as essential service workers, so their kids were eligible to return to school full time. But that doesn't solve the gap between the end of school and (possible) lack of after school care spots. Given that social distancing is difficult in school settings (even in High School!), smaller class sizes did reduce the amount of other people's exhalations that everyone was exposed to. (Kids also had to bring their own devices, school supplies, with no sharing).

I think planning for September involves 3 plans: 100% in school attendance, a blend of remote and in-school learning, and 100% remote learning, depending on what is happening with Covid-19 at any given point.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 10:20 AM on June 28 [2 favorites]


In Ontario we're waiting for school board plans under a) hybrid, b) distance learning only and c) regular school, so who knows.

I think the small cohorts are both about physical distancing, the hopes that you can reduce your contacts, and a few practical things like how many kids can you line up to individually wash their hands, supervise enough to keep them apart, etc., and still have any instructional hours left.

For our family, grandma lives with us - she is in good health but has high risk factors - and my job has been eliminated.

My oldest is in a specialized program so we'll probably send him to any school that he is offered, but we'll eliminate his other risk factors so after school he'll be home. My youngest, grade 4 in the fall, I will either school at home (we've been told this will be an option no matter what) or send under a part-time model. So for us, the part-time school would reduce our risk.

I figure most schools will end up with someone with an active case, and will have to shut down for two weeks at a time for all families to quarantine, regardless - not sure if they will do that by entire school, floor, or classrooms. So regardless of whatever model they choose, families are going to be really struggling for childcare all around.

I'm not sure pavillions outdoors would be great in an Alberta winter. :) I say that a bit amused but also to point out that climate and school design is going to be a huge factor. In Toronto some of the older schools, coincidentally built around the time of the Spanish Flu, have big, airy hallways and leak air and energy like sieves and that may work to their benefit, whereas modern schools build under the funding models that provides $$ per student based on a small space are going to have a tougher time, air-quality wise.

What a world we live in.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:35 AM on June 28 [2 favorites]


Just from a standpoint of air filtration and/or particle settling, I would think the A week/B week or A fortnight/B fortnight plans would be better than having both As and Bs in the school at some point during the week.

Also healthwise, one point I haven't seen raised is that the teachers are actually the most at-risk people in this scenario, if we understand the virus right, and yet they're still seeing everyone in all the cohorts. It's not obvious to me that students sitting farther from each other will mean much about how far the teacher is from each of them.

But mostly I am wondering how the logistics will work, given that the people doing in-person teaching (for the same facetime hours, just to half the audience) are supposedly the same people doing the virtual teaching. It seems to rely on some wildass Banach-Tarski theory of time management. I know that some teachers are endlessly creative and perhaps someone will be able to make Stone Soup out of this mess, but I await proof.

I'm sorry, this is probably a crummy Ask answer. I share your frustration.
posted by eirias at 10:41 AM on June 28 [6 favorites]


I should clarify my original answer. What I described is one of the more robust 'alternating' models I've seen in discussion for my area. However, what I understand increasingly from reading state guidelines and district communication, is that the goal is to have every child safely, physically in school for in-person learning. And that the effort between now and Aug/Sept is how to make that happen. From identifying physical spaces that can hold students, back-up spaces that can be repurposed; distanced seating arrangements; requiring masks at all times except eating; increased PPE (like acrylic face guards, for teachers to even further reduce their risk; testing that is easy and free; transportation options that reduce exposure to public spaces; updated filtration systems; more sinks, more soap, more time spent each day washing hands; attention to what lunch, recess, sports, and extracurriculars look like; and online learning that is ready to deploy on the fly....that seems increasingly like the focus of efforts leading up to next fall.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:48 AM on June 28


In my school district in suburban Atlanta: they've offered two options: full time in school or virtual. If you choose virtual, kid can't do athletics or extracurricular with their school.
Masks are not mandated.

So, yeah. No good choices.
posted by heathrowga at 11:07 AM on June 28 [2 favorites]


I've been in discussions with how we'll implement this in my school district. I'm not a teacher, but I favor an alternating day structure that keeps the class the same size (say, 30 students) but splits in-school attendance into different cohorts (M-W, T-Th). The Monday group is in school, the Tuesday group is in distance learning; the other days, they switch. (Distance learning only on Fridays.)

I tend to like this idea because, in-school or at-home, the students are kept together as a class, which I think is important to decrease student isolation and encourage socialization. In the in-school kids can collaborate with the at-home kids on projects, so everyone has a sense of being part of a group. It's also easier on the teacher, since she has one class of students that she guides through the material together, rather than having to juggle two sets of lesson plans.

Doubling the amount of classroom space is physically impossible; doubling the number of teachers is financially impossible. And although there are risks associated with re-opening schools, the cost of not doing so to the development of the children is really high, not just academically, but in terms of their social and emotional development.
posted by SPrintF at 11:16 AM on June 28 [1 favorite]


SPrintF, for a given classroom, who will be doing the distance teaching for cohort B while cohort A is in the classroom?
posted by eirias at 11:30 AM on June 28 [1 favorite]


Actually, I'm going to pass on the idea of making the cohorts Mon-Tue and Thu-Fri, with Wednesday as a distance learning-only day. Having two breaks in the week (Wednesday and the weekend) seems preferable to having one. Thanks for the idea!
posted by SPrintF at 11:31 AM on June 28


SPrintF, for a given classroom, who will be doing the distance teaching for cohort B while cohort A is in the classroom?

Call me crazy, but I'd like the same teacher to be providing instruction to both the in-school and distance learning students at the same time. I think this is do-able with the Teams set up we have in my district. Keeping the students together as a group seems preferable to atomizing them into tiny cohorts. I'd like to see the teachers organize their lesson plans around engaging the in-school and at-home students together on class projects; they do this now around a physical table and I have to think they could do it just as easily around a virtual table.

I've given a lot of thought to "team teaching" models, particularly to safeguard our older teachers who possibly shouldn't be in a classroom at all. But it places a significant burden on the teachers to work with two cohorts (double the students) at the same time, while maintaining the necessary communication with the other teacher in the team. Not impossible, but it's a bigger transition for the teachers than I think many could cope with. And with all the strain on our current teaching staff, keeping things manageable for them in this new environment is an important consideration.
posted by SPrintF at 11:38 AM on June 28 [1 favorite]


I’m in BC, so we sent our kids to school 2 days a week for the past month. It’s not been the worst. Each kid is in the Monday Tuesday group or the Thursday Friday. The essential workers’ kids go 5 days. Each in person group had 1 day of their own teacher, and 1 day of a support teacher (the librarian/ art teacher, gym teacher etc). On the other days, the teachers taught online. On Wednesdays, the essential worker kids were all together in the art room.

I’m on the board of our school aftercare, so I know that there were enough spots, even with reduced numbers of kids. The provincial government has been providing full funding for any childcare centre that stays open, so even though the aftercare staff are cycled through on a 2-week cycle, and there are less fees, we can pay them all their full time salaries.

It’s been fine, so we’ll see how the fall goes....
posted by Valancy Rachel at 12:28 PM on June 28 [2 favorites]


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