BRUNSWICK — No one disagrees that we need to reopen schools. The question is, can we do it safely? We need to minimize the possibility of children, teachers and families becoming infected with COVID-19. While we can’t eliminate all risk, we now know how to reduce the risk and move forward. The puzzle has several pieces, but the element I want to discuss is frequent testing. Last week Colby College announced their reopening plan, which included testing all students, both initially and then twice per week during the semester.

Putting this strategy into place in all schools (from pre-K through universities) will take resources. I implore Maine’s congressional delegation to work toward securing these resources for schools throughout the country.

While earlier there was debate regarding the urgency of reopening schools, most now agree there is no choice. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently came out in support of this approach, stating that it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

Part of the calculation is the impact the lack of school has on working parents. While schooling as it exists in our country can’t do the whole job of providing child care, it fills a huge gap and allows millions to work. This case for reopening schools was best summed up by writer and food blogger Deb Perelman in a New York Times op-ed: “Allowing workplaces to reopen while schools, camps and day cares remain closed tells a generation of working parents that it’s fine if they lose their jobs, insurance and livelihoods in the process.”

The uneven impact of remote learning also is a key reason for reopening schools. The Urban Institute looked at this issue and released a report titled “For Students of Color, Remote Learning Environments Pose Multiple Challenges.” From the report: “The conversation to date on disparities in remote learning environments has been incomplete… It also fails to frame these disparities as structural barriers – many of them a direct result of structural racism – that make it harder for students of color to succeed in school, even during normal circumstances.”

So how do schools reopen safely? Some argue that since children are less likely to get sick, we need to take no special precautions. While it’s true that children are safer than adults, they are still at risk. A report in STAT News discussed two recent studies on a coronavirus-related inflammatory syndrome in children: “The studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, describe children who develop severe inflammation affecting multiple organ systems after having had COVID-19, sometimes between two and four weeks after the infection. The majority of the children were previously healthy.”


So the risk to the children themselves is not zero. There is also the risk to teachers and the families of students and teachers. The risk is even higher when children live in multigenerational homes, exposing older family members to potential infection.

We will not be able to prevent all infections, but we can identify them quickly and contain them by testing everyone in the school regularly. Regular testing, along with a mask requirement, social distancing and additional strategies, will allow us to open schools while reducing risk.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer has been talking about the need for regular testing (both in schools and elsewhere) for months. He describes the approach as it relates to schools (and as exemplified by Colby’s plan) in a recent Wall Street Journal ad.

Testing infrastructure is a concern, but the use of pooled testing can go a long way toward making widespread testing feasible. Pooled testing takes a group (a class of students) and puts their samples together to run the test. If the test is negative, you’re good to go; if it is positive, then you go back and test the class individually. The Washington Post recently examined the methodology in detail in an article headlined “What is pool testing and how does it work?

No one knows how long we’ll be dealing with COVID-19. But as the fall approaches, we’ll need to continue to adapt to its continued presence. Regular pooled testing in schools is an essential part of that adaptation.

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