Here's What Science Says About How Safe It Really Is to Reopen Schools in the Pandemic

Some educators and parents are pushing for schools to stay closed—but should they be? Here's what experts have to say about opening schools for in-person classes again.

Around the country, parents are still worried about their children attending school amid a pandemic and, in many cases, trying to decide whether or not remote learning is the safest option until kids can receive the COVID-19 vaccine. But does it still make sense to keep schools closed?

As coronavirus cases continue to decrease—according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), child COVID-19 cases have been on the decline for 8 consecutive weeks—and vaccination speeds up, it seems that President Biden's goal to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction could be a reality before long.

According to a HuffPost/YouGov survey last summer, only 19 percent of K-12 parents wanted school to fully reopen for students in the fall. Now, though, more and more parents are calling for schools to open their doors already. Biden has vowed to make that happen, focusing on a national pandemic response that includes mask mandates, prioritizing the vaccinations and regular testing of teachers and staff, providing funding to make classrooms cleaner and safer, and following CDC guidance to reopen schools, which now includes the recommendation to relax social distancing from six feet to three feet for students wearing masks in schools.

With COVID-19 vaccines available and testing done regularly, the fears of teachers—especially those that are immunocompromised or have underlying medical conditions—could be eased. But with kids under 16 still not eligible to receive vaccines, what does that mean for reopening schools completely across the U.S. again? Parents and educators alike are anxious about the possibility of exposing their family to COVID-19. Part of the problem? Continuously conflicting—and inconclusive—information on a very new disease.

First we were told that children were less likely to get the coronavirus and that, in many cases, they may be asymptomatic carriers. Then, cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C)—the new disease with ties to COVID-19—began popping up. Now though, nearly a year after the pandemic started, we simply know more and one thing seems to be consistent: Schools are not the coronavirus super spreaders we feared they might be. Kids are more likely to develop mild symptoms should they become infected, and severe illness, hospitalization, and even death is rare. As more data is collected it's becoming evident that transmission is generally low in schools. Research is pointing to reopening schools again with proper precautions.

Here, we've compiled recommendations from the most trusted sources about whether or not schools should reopen for in-person instruction so you can be informed before deciding what's best for your family.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

"Children absolutely need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well-being, and so safety in schools and in the community must be a priority," AAP President Lee Savio Beers, M.D., FAAP, said in a January 2021 news release. "We know that some children are really suffering without the support of in-person classroom experiences or adequate technology at home. We need governments at the state and federal levels to prioritize funding the needed safety accommodations, such as improving ventilation systems and providing personal protective equipment for teachers and staff."

Citing the pros of getting kids back into classrooms if schools take proper precautions, the AAP said in a July statement that "the importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020." Between learning deficits, social isolation, and even abuse or depression, the AAP says that time away from school can place "children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality."

The AAP also points to "new research findings that schools have not been a significant driver of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in their communities when they take safety precautions. Transmission has been especially low among younger children."

The verdict:

Reopen schools, but districts should "provide layers of protection for students, teachers and staff" including enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing, and improving air circulation.

National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine

According to a July report out of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, "school districts should prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs."

Weighing health risks of reopening schools against educational risks of continuing with remote learning, the committee strongly recommends in-person education—with precautions like hand-washing, social distancing, and avoiding community gatherings (like lunch or recess).

The verdict:

Reopen schools, especially for younger children or children with disabilities.

World Health Organization (WHO)

"Schools can reopen safely," Ruediger Krech, M.D., WHO Director of Health Promotion, said in a December 2020 release. "Decisions to reopen schools should be driven by data and the safety measures in place, but also address the concerns of students, parents, caregivers and teachers. These concerns are best addressed if reopening approaches are co-designed with students, parents, caregivers and teachers."

With that, the WHO helped to develop a checklist to safely reopen schools that includes social distancing, environmental cleaning and ventilation, wearing face coverings, isolating sick individuals, and even considering closing again should their be an uptick in transmission.

"All plans and measures to reopen schools safely should aim to reduce inequalities and improve educational conditions and health outcomes for the most vulnerable and marginalized," according to the WHO. "They should also account for the needs of staff and teachers, including those with disabilities or medical comorbidities that place them at higher risk of severe disease if infected with SARS-CoV-2. It is crucial for schools-related policies and programmes [sic] to consider the challenges facing the most vulnerable and marginalized in accessing services in education and health."

The verdict:

Work to reopen schools while taking protective measures to ensure the safety of the students, educators, staff, and community.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

In line with the Biden administration's push for schools to reopen, the CDC has released guidance on the importance of reopening schools.

"Opening schools for in-person learning as safely and quickly as possible, and keeping them open, is important given the many known and established benefits of in-person learning," says the CDC. "In order to enable in-person learning and assist schools with their day-to-day operations, it is important to adopt and diligently implement actions to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 inside the school and out in the community. Implementing these actions in schools will reduce the risk of in-school spread of COVID-19 regardless of the underlying community burden—with risk being the lowest if community spread is low and proven mitigation strategies are implemented consistently."

This comes after initial recommendations by the CDC back in July when less data was available—which considered full-size, in-person classrooms to be high risk—were criticized by former President Trump. The new guidance stresses the impact in-person instruction has on education, social and emotional skills, nutrition, and safety.

"School closure disrupts the delivery of in-person instruction and critical services to children and families, which has negative individual and societal ramifications," an earlier statement read. "Reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being, and future of one of America's greatest assets—our children—while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all their families."

As of March 2021, the CDC even recommended that social distancing between students could be relaxed from six feet to three feet—and that goes for all K-12 students wearing masks, regardless of community transmission levels.

The verdict:

Reopen schools, though the CDC recommends that "school officials should make decisions about school opening and about staying open for in-person learning based on CDC's Indicators for Dynamic Decision-making."

The Bottom Line

Most experts are overwhelmingly pointing to schools reopening, but also stress the importance of it being deemed safe by local health officials, educators, and parents.

"Everyone had a fear there would be explosive outbreaks of transmission in the schools," Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Washington Post. "We have to say that, to date, we have not seen those in the younger kids, and that is a really important observation."

As The Atlantic points out, evidence pointing to reopening schools has only accumulated since the fall with more and more experts on board. "Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19," Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, wrote for the site last October.

And while sending kids into schools does not have zero risk—a community with a high transmission rate will likely see some spread at school—it's clear that remote learning has had negative impacts on families—including increased stress, learning loss, and even a rise in student suicides—that make the need for it being only temporary even more crucial.

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