Back-to-School Advice for Dealing with COVID-19, Stress and Learning Loss

Back-to-School Advice for Dealing with COVID-19, Stress and Learning Loss

DURHAM, N.C. – This fall marks an uncertain moment in the pandemic, with rising COVID-19 infection rates in the United States and a shifting public health response to protect the population from the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

At the same time, K-12 schools will soon be filled with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated students. To help inform upcoming decisions that parents, teachers and school administrators will face, a panel of Duke university experts in pediatrics, psychiatry and neuroscience offered advice Wednesday about the best way for students to return to school safely.

Watch the media briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts from the briefing.


Danny Benjamin, M.D., professor of pediatrics

“Clearly, from a medical safety perspective, the optimal choice here is universal masking for K-12, regardless of what policy decisions might get made or where those decisions are made.”

“From a medicine perspective, masking clearly works. It prevents transmission in schools.”

“I think what we’re going to see is school districts struggle a little bit with some increased clusters and some secondary transmission. They would be well-advised to reach out for some intervention and safety plans.”

“While I think that vaccination is ultimately the answer here, for the pre-K through 12 environment, as an intermediate answer … if you want to prevent COVID transmission in your community if you want to prevent COVID transmission at your schools, it’s masking until we have sufficiently high vaccination.”

Kanecia Obie Zimmerman, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics

“Over the spring, we collected data from 100 districts in North Carolina. Some of them were doing less than three feet of distance, some of them were doing three to six feet, and some of them were doing six feet or more. Some were having bussing that allowed one person to a seat, two people to a seat and three people to a seat.”

“In this setting, we know that masking is one of the most important things, particularly if you want to get all the kids back in school.”

“Schools that are successful … are monitoring their masking rates, are watching people come through, are reporting that and being very transparent about what is happening in their schools with regard to masking, as well as with regard to secondary transmission. Having transparency, reporting data, having third parties analyze these data are also very important.

“With masking in place … we have an opportunity to keep kids in school.”


Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences

“As we get ready for school, there’s certainly some anxieties and worries in both children and adults, as well as some excitement and looking forward to being with friends again. I think we have to reframe the question of, ‘What about all that’s lost?’ and think about where we are and where we are moving to.”

“So, one of the most important things as we move into the next school year is talking to our children and planning and discussing what’s going to happen. ‘This is the plan, it may change, but I will keep you updated. What are you looking forward to about school? What are you worried about?’ Having that conversation and listening to them.”

“(With masking), what we find is how parents model, how parents discuss this issue with their children, can have the biggest impact on their teens, on their kids. If parents say, ‘This is why we are doing it. This is for our safety,’ then children are more comfortable with it.”

Harris Cooper, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience

“Especially for the youngest children, being in a social context for those many hours is going to be something new and unusual to them. They’re going to have to go through an important period of adjustment.”


Danny Benjamin

“The Delta variant is several-fold more transmissible than the original variant, the Alpha variant. As such, it will make secondary attack rates in the unmasked setting much higher. It will result in much more quarantine, and it will result in faster school closures as a result of multiple clusters. So, it makes masking more important.”


Harris Cooper

“There have been some recent reports that suggest that kids have lost a considerable amount of learning while they were out of school. This isn’t surprising.”

“What we’ve discovered with the pandemic is identical to what happens over summer, except more extreme. Kids lose math; they lose reading. Children from poor homes lose more than kids from homes that are better off.”

“This is going to create challenges for teachers. The first big challenge they’re going to have is with regard to assessing where students are. They’re going to find there is much greater variation in where they are. And they’re going to have to pick up from that point and figure out how to potentially individualize instruction in particular ways that will help kids catch up.”

“It’s unprecedented. We have to make adjustments to compensate what students have lost. There are innovative possibilities that I think school districts might consider. One of the most interesting and important ones would be the potential for extending the school year. It would take multiple extensions for us to make up the five or six months on average that students have lost.”

Robin Gurwitch

“We have to recognize that, for teachers, they are also expressing some anxiety about the re-openings.”

“As we look forward, we have to think about social and emotional learning not only for students, but what is the self-care policy for our educators?

“As we think about supporting teachers, are there things in place in the schools for teachers that may be struggling with their own stress?”

“How can you move forward in teaching reading and writing and arithmetic, while also helping children with social and emotional learning?”

“When returning back to schools, there will be students that have lost caregivers and relatives. There will be teachers that are no longer there. We need to make sure that teachers have some support on how to address grief and loss, whether it is through death or whether it is through loss through economic insecurities, housing insecurities, food insecurities.”

“It is unfair to ask teachers to go back to usual teaching without giving them skills to help with the ‘normal for now’ situation.”

Meet the experts:

Danny Benjamin, M.D., Ph.D.
Danny Benjamin, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics in the Duke University School of Medicine and chair of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Pediatric Trials Network.

Harris Cooper, Ph.D.
Harris Cooper is a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience who studies the value of homework, and the impact of school calendars and calendar variations on students and their families.

Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D.
Robin Gurwitch is a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and director of parent-child interaction therapy at the Center for Child and Family Health. She studies the impact of trauma on children and families.

Kanecia Obie Zimmerman, M.D.
Kanecia Zimmerman, M.D., is an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Critical Care Medicine at Duke University Medical Center. She is co-leading a pilot project funded by the National Institutes of Health studying the safe reopening of schools.

Duke experts on a variety of other topics related the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.

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