Harvard research data says DC area schools could reopen safely with precautions

As students start the school year virtually, many are asking when it will be safe to return to class. According to Harvard researchers, school systems in the D.C. region could safely open to some students now.

The Harvard Global Health Institute looked at COVID-19 risk level based on new daily cases, assessing counties across the country as red, orange, yellow or green. Green means all schools could reopen with precautions. 

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FOX 5 found that most of the D.C. region is in the yellow category, with some counties in orange. View the map here.

Under the guidelines, both yellow and orange counties can reopen schools for in-person learning if there are appropriate precautions taken. The guidelines say elementary students should be prioritized as the first to return. 

READ MORE: Board of education lays out timeline for Maryland schools to comply with new virtual learning guidelines

“In the D.C. area, as long as there are safety precautions in the schools-that means improved ventilation within schools, and even, ideally, testing for students and teachers if possible, in those areas there is low enough community level transmission where the risk of transmission in schools may be relatively low versus the benefits of in-person education,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Tsai says masks for all students and proper space for social distancing is also paramount.

READ MORE: Maryland parents face frustrations as students return to virtual classes

Some counties and states are using these Harvard standards for reopening schools, including West Virginia. Others are developing their own standards. Tsai says some choices have been surprising.

“There are places that could safely do in-person teaching and are defaulting to virtual, and places where it’s the exact opposite- where they shouldn’t be doing in-person teaching for now until the pandemic is controlled and yet they marched ahead,” he said.

The map created by researchers, shows the number of daily new cases per 100,000 people. Here are some highlights from our region as of Sept. 2:

Orange Risk Level:

Prince William County 13.5 new cases per 100,000 people

- Prince George’s County 10.7

- Charles County 10.2

Yellow Risk Level:

- Fairfax County 8.6

- Loudoun County 8.4

- Anne Arundel County 8.4

- District of Columbia 7.1

- Montgomery County 6.3

Area school districts are still deciding what reopening standards to use.

The state of Maryland put out standards counties can choose to use. Tsai says they look to be largely in line with the Harvard guidelines.

He says school systems need to make reopening plans and be transparent with parents about the data driving those decisions.