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Operating Schools in a Pandemic: Predicted Effects of Opening, Quarantining, and Closing Strategies

In June 2020, the Department of Education (PDE) partnered with Mathematica, one of the nation's foremost social policy research firms, and the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to issue Considerations for Reopening Pennsylvania Schools, the first state-level reopening guidance informed by evidence-based modeling on the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

In releasing that research, PDE promised to continue generating evidence to help education leaders navigate difficult tradeoffs during the 2020-21 school year. Accordingly, last month, PDE asked Mathematica to:

  1. Simulate disease spread across a wide range of school reopening scenarios (encompassing school type, size, and reopening strategy, along with local infection rate and COVID-19 testing capacity); and
  2. Evaluate the impact of various quarantining and closing strategies in response to detected infections.

Using assumptions informed by the latest research on COVID-19, Mathematica ran more than 400,000 simulations that incorporated available data on infection spread and mitigation strategies (such as increasing physical distance or wearing face coverings) to predict the likely spread of disease in a school and yield comparative results for 108 different school situations—from very large high schools to elementary schools, and covering a wide range of school reopening strategies.

In important ways, Mathematica's research validates Instructional Model Guidance by finding that blended or hybrid approaches to school reopening, in which groups of students attend in person part-time, dramatically reduce the total number of likely infections in the school.

This research is designed to provide every school leader with highly relevant modeling around various reopening strategies, information on what those strategies imply for when an infection presents, and projections for what the longer-term school year may look like (i.e., how often students and staff could reasonably expect to be in school).