High schools are different, and so should be their reopening plans

We nearly all benefited from the varied learning experiences that our high schools provided – with a diverse set of classes with teachers, expert in their subject areas. However, the way such experiences are provided needs to be reconsidered in the era of COVID-19.

Recent evidence suggests that COVID-19 risks in high schools are greater, in part because the students are older, and in part because in rotating among classrooms students share space with many more persons in the course of a day. These risk could be reduced by changing the structure of student class assignments and/or schedules. While such changes would be difficult, they may be necessary to avoid uncontrolled outbreaks that could lead to disruptive school closings and/or extended periods of remote learning.

Haverhill Public Schools Opening Plan of August 11, 2020 calls for Haverhill High School students to attend classes in seven periods each in-person school day. The plan seems to presume that student class schedules and assignment to classrooms will be largely unchanged from prior practice. This presents an area of vulnerability to spread of the coronavirus.

Here are is the argument in a nutshell:

  1. We can expect spread of COVID-19 from the community to the schools.
  2. We need to contain these events in the classroom to avoid schoolwide and districtwide spread.
  3. The high school presents much greater risks of schoolwide spread.
  4. These risks could be greatly reduced by altering class rotation in scheduling.
We can expect spread of COVID-19 from the community to the schools.

In Haverhill community background rates for COVID though lower than many other states are currently higher than in many countries that have successfully opened schools. I am looking at the average of new cases per day in Essex County, as Haverhill statistics are based on fewer cases and produce more variable numbers. Also, many Haverhill residents engage in work, shopping or other activities beyond Haverhill’s borders that present COVID-19 risks.

How many new COVID-19 cases might we expect in a semester at HHS given our current local environment? We can only estimate this in very rough terms because we do not have good evidence-based estimates of COVID-19 spread  among children. New COVID-19 infection rates in Essex County are currently about 0.079 per 1,000 population per day in Essex County; Haverhill’s most recent (August 12) average daily incidence is .024 per 1000. We have about 2,400 students and teachers in Haverhill High School; assume 75% (1800) enroll in the hybrid in-person program. If student and teacher infections are similar to Essex County rates we might expect 0.079 x 1.8 x 30 days = 4.26 cases per month. [This would be 0.024 x 1.8 x 30 days = 1.30 with Haverhill numbers.] We might estimate about 61% of this or (0.8 to 2.6 cases per month) if most students only contract from a parent and do not work or have other activities outside the home and school. So roughly we might see on average about 1 to 4 COVID-19 cases per month arrive from the outside in each Model 2 cohort of the high school. If the rate of new cases in the community rises — perhaps due to local reopening, seasonal factors, or spread from states with higher infection rates – the rate could become higher.

We need to contain these events in the classroom to avoid schoolwide and districtwide spread.

Dr. Maddox’s told the School Committee that he was not much worried about individual “contained events.” Greater risks to health and educational disruption can come when the virus is spread more widely throughout schools and the district.

An infected student arriving in an elementary school a will be in contact with just one or two teachers and a small number of students in the elementary school classroom (of maybe 10 or 12 in the hybrid model). Even if the child remains asymptomatic and attends for several days the number of people will be small and the risk largely confined to one class room of students. Once discovered by testing or symptoms in one or more students the 10-12 students and their teacher can be quarantined without major disruption to the school. This is very likely a “contained event” such as Dr. Maddox noted.

The high school presents much greater risks of schoolwide spread.

It is important that school reopening plan recognize differences by age. Bill Gates, for example, has been speaking in favor of school reopening for students up to age 14 or 15. In Haverhill we have seen greater numbers of COCID-19 cases among those of high school age (14 to 17) than among other school age children. See chart.

Recent evidence suggests that children over age 10 can spread COVID-19 in a manner similar to adults. Compared to those in elementary schools, a similarly infected high school student may not only be a more effective spreader of COVID-19 but could be in contact with perhaps six or seven times as many students. These say 80 to 100 students will not all be in one class and they will in turn each be in contact with others in other classes, perhaps over several contagious but asymptomatic days.  So the virus could spread throughout the school (or cohort in the hybrid Model) in a matter of days. Not everyone would be infected but a majority of students in the high school (or cohort) could have at least on class, restroom, or hallway contact with an infected or suspected infected person.

This type of event, as soon as it is recognized, would probably be beyond capacity to timely identify trace and track hundreds of students. So it likely would necessitate shut down of the school for at least those in the infected cohort.  Such an event could be repeated as a newly infected students enter the school.

Such events are not just theoretical possibilities. As noted at the most recent school committee meeting, just this month North Paulding High School in Georgia which had to close after only one week of school when 9 students tested positive for COVID-19. HPS needs to find a way to avoid such school closures even if that means altering course assignments and schedules to avoid in school rotation among classes. Many of the largest reported COVID outbreaks in schools so far have been in high schools and middle schools.  This includes an outbreak in New Zealand (known for doing a good job on COVID control) that infected 96 persons, an outbreak in Israel where 153 students and 23 staff were infected, and a high school in France where 38% of pupils, 43% of teachers, and 59% of nonteaching staff had been infected. (Science Magazine, July 7, 2020).

These risks could be greatly reduced by altering class scheduling.

To avoid school-wide spread we need to keep kids in smaller groups (e.g. pods) that don’t interact with others. The challenge is high school students have multiple classes with different teachers. Here are a couple illustrative suggestions; you may come up with others. These methods, could be structured within the Hybrid Learning Model 2, would keep high school students involved in in-person learning in a single classroom with the same students all day, with teachers rotating among classes.

Option A: Group students in pods, each with the same core schedule. Students would choose among core course packages (e.g., Math, English Science History) generally grouped by level with some variation.  Those in academies could take core courses together. Core courses could be taught in-person, other classes such as languages and electives would be conducted on remote learning days scheduled for each cohort.

Option B: Intense Single-Subject Days. An alternative way to reduce contacts in high schools would be for students to stay in one class all day.  Students would have the same classes as traditionally but have only one subject and be in only one classroom each day in school. In the hybrid model students could meet in person for a full two days on one subject then meet the following week on another subject, rotating through classes week by week.

Option C: Sequential Courses. In a third such option, students might take classes sequentially one subject at a time. Courses would be taught much as an intensive summer school course over a few weeks.  Students would have only one subject for a month, rotating classes through all classes over the school year.

Any of these course scheduling approaches would reduce the number of high school students to come in contact with an infected student or teacher who enters the school building. Risk of spread, though perhaps higher among the older students, would be contained in a single classroom, as in an elementary school.


High schools are different and we need to address risk differently there. In implementing the Model 2 Hybrid plan for reopening Haverhill Public Schools should consider adapting student class schedules to reduce risk of school wide spread of COVID-19 in Haverhill High School. The choice may be between making such changes and disruptive closings throughout the school year.

It is possible, of course, that when students return to school community COVID-19 rates will be low enough, in-person attendance will be restricted enough, distancing will work well enough, masks will be effective enough, ventilation improvements will be complete enough, and compliance will be great enough that class schedule changes will not be needed. But all that seems uncertain at this point. In any case, the District should fully consider these issues and implement strong strategies to prevent schoolwide and districtwide spread that recognize different risks among the schools.