The temperature was in the 70s in State College, Pennsylvania on Friday, but the local school board voted to call a “snow day,” cancel classes, and have students in the town’s public schools stay home. Cases of COVID-19 in the area had spiked, and the school district’s board of directors needed time to decide what to do.
No students or staff in the district were sick. Instead, the local increases were driven by outbreaks at Penn State University.
“We knew that we were opening schools at the same time Penn State was opening,” Amber Concepcion, the school board president, said during a meeting. “We knew there would be a growth curve.”
COVID-19 cases are climbing in college towns around the country, and those outbreaks are forcing local communities to make tough choices. Many are deciding whether they should open their elementary, middle, and high schools after all. “There’s a tradeoff,” says David Rubin, the director of the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. “If you keep local colleges online, you provide a way for K-12 schools to be open.”
College kids may have less to lose, in terms of their education, from online classes. Younger students, particularly in kindergarten and elementary school, aren’t as able to learn through a screen. They also won’t be able to build the same social and emotional skills virtually as they would in a classroom, with their peers and with a teacher. Experts worry those will be hard to get back if children fall behind. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said that getting those students back in a classroom should be the priority.
“It is most important to get the youngest children back into school buildings, to stop the alarming slide in their learning,” Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
In many places, though, the priorities have been flipped. School districts in college towns are responding to the college and university decisions, not the other way around.
Experts told The Verge in August that college towns would be the center of coronavirus transmission this fall: each year, thousands of students arrive from out of town and live in dorms or group housing. Many schools weren’t planning on testing enough to keep outbreaks from spreading on campus, and administrators pushed responsibility for managing distancing guidelines off on students. Those predictions are starting to come true. Even though COVID-19 cases are falling in counties around the country, they’re climbing in places where college students make up a big part of the population, according to two separate analyses by The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
One of the new hotspots is Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. The test positivity rate in the area was around 20 percent at the end of August, and the city has one of the worst outbreaks in the country. That’s one reason the local school district asked the state department of education for permission to start the school year online, and why today — the first day of school — was virtual.
Welcome back (virtually) to our students! We are so excited to kick-off our 2020-21 school year today! #ICCSDtogether— Iowa City Schools (@IowaCitySchools) September 8, 2020
The school board in Charlottesville, Virginia made the call to move to virtual learning at the end of July, weeks before students at the University of Virginia were set to return to the area. The university’s plans to bring its students back to the area, though, were a big part of the school board’s decision to go online. “In any given moment, after the [University of Virginia] students come back into our town, the local numbers are going to be really different than they are right now,” Jennifer McKeever, chairwoman of the school board, told The Daily Progress in July.
Education officials in Ann Arbor, Michigan made a similar call in July, saying in-person school wasn’t safe. The University of Michigan, which enrolls around 50,000 students each year, was going to bring students back to the city — and officials said they weren’t sure what the impact might be.
Some parts of the country, though, did put grade schools first: the Los Angeles County Department of Health put heavy restrictions on local colleges and universities. In-person classes and on-campus housing was limited, which forced schools like the University of California, Los Angeles and Harvey Mudd College to scale back their plans.
The department made that call because being able to reopen K-12 schools was more important, a spokesperson told The Hill. A college student-driven spike in the area could interfere with those reopening plans.
It’s still hard to say how much outbreaks among college students will leak out into the surrounding communities, Rubin told The Verge. He’s watching the counties next door to those with campuses — where staff members and professors may be more likely to live — for increases. He’s starting to see bumps in some places, including in the counties around State College, home to Penn State University. “That makes me concerned that some of the transmission in State College is starting to spread out,” he says.
Over the next few weeks, any overflow will start to crystalize. “There will be some areas where the quick actions of school leadership could contain things, and stop spillover into business owners and school staff,” Rubin says.
People living in the local community, though, don’t have much control over what those actions might be. The State College school board chose to transition to remote learning for this week. It will decide on Friday if they stay online for another week or if they can return in person. That’ll depend on a number of factors, including the amount of coronavirus transmission in the area — which is linked to Penn State University.
“This gives us a sense of what the prioritization has been,” Rubin says.