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The New York Times

Opinion: How to Fully Reopen Schools This Fall

Eleven months after the pandemic began, schools remain closed in many parts of the United States. With many teachers still waiting to be vaccinated, the question of whether they should reopen has been the subject of passionate debate in cities like Chicago, where teachers have just returned to classrooms after lengthy negotiations. In San Francisco, the city attorney sued the school district for failing to teach face-to-face classes. On February 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has recognized that face-to-face learning can be done safely, released guidelines on how to do it. Their recommendations include universal use of face masks, hand washing, social distancing, contact tracing, and disinfection. According to the new guidelines, in order to fully reopen primary, secondary, and high schools to classroom teaching, COVID-19 infection rates in a community must be very low; Few places in the United States currently meet the agency’s criteria. Meanwhile, bringing children into classrooms for half a school day or restricting attendance to younger children could remain the norm in many places. CDC has provided a good framework for getting more students back into classrooms. However, the guidelines make it difficult to do what is most beneficial for the nation’s children: that all students, of all grades, are present in classrooms five days a week. The pandemic has surprised us time and again. However, given where we are now, by the fall a large proportion of adults are likely to be vaccinated and certainly all teachers and school staff should have access to vaccinations. Even with the spread of newer variants of the coronavirus, high vaccination rates are likely to decrease COVID-19 rates (hopefully, they will drop a lot). However, it is highly unlikely that children, especially those under 12, will have been immunized by the fall. And we shouldn’t expect COVID-19 rates to drop to zero by then or maybe never. That means American schools could face a different and less dangerous situation this fall. As a result, CDC should identify where it can update its guidelines, when infection rates decline and inoculations continue, to ensure that as many children as possible can take classes in person when the next academic year begins. Unvaccinated children and the presence of some cases of COVID-19 should not prevent schools from reopening with a model close to normal. The data do not support the need to wait until children are vaccinated to return to school. Children are less likely than adults to become infected with coronavirus and tend to develop less severe cases. In addition, the losses for them by not attending the school in person are considerable. One of the biggest logistical obstacles to reopening is the recommendation to keep 2 meters of distance between children: many schools lack the necessary additional space. CDC guidelines indicate that this distance is crucial; Even when community spread is at an all-time low, agency guidelines recommend keeping 2 meters “as much as possible.” However, some public health experts have argued that just under 1 meter is sufficient; even shorter distance may work. Opening to full capacity could require schools to use the less than 1 meter rule or find a way to expand. The agency should also provide more explicit guidelines on ventilation in classrooms. How many open windows are enough? Are HEPA air filters required? Schools can create cohorts, or groups, to limit the number of children who interact with each other; This reduces the spread and also lessens the impact of a quarantine when children are exposed to COVID-19. However, cohorts are more difficult to manage with high school and high school students who switch classes several times a day; in addition, they may require more staff and classrooms than the campuses have. The CDC recommends that people who are exposed to COVID-19 should be quarantined for up to two weeks. This can significantly affect the normal operation of schools, because a single instance in a classroom would require dozens of students to be quarantined for weeks, disrupting learning and stressing teachers, staff and families. If such quarantines prevent infections, few would oppose the agency. However, some data indicates that there is very little evidence of infection from people who are exposed at school and proceed to quarantine at home. If this finding is more widely sustained, quarantines for people who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID may be limited or the duration of quarantines reduced, in conjunction with testing and monitoring. Cohorts allow schools to limit interactions between students and staff, making it easier to trace contacts when COVID-19 cases arise. Groups, or even sets of fewer students, can also help by limiting people who need to be quarantined. The schools that are currently open in the United States can provide some ideas about what works and what doesn’t. Some require a little less than 1 meter to be kept between students, some require 2 meters, and some require no physical distance. Schools have taken different approaches to ventilation, coronavirus testing, and quarantines. It is possible to learn if all these efforts truly mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but there has not been a nationwide system for schools to share their findings with each other in an organized way. An extensive effort at the federal level to collect and compare this information should be the basis of the approach to a full reopening. The new spring guidelines are a start, but keeping them in place for the fall will likely mean that we will not be able to reopen all schools. This would be a tragedy for the children. Schools cannot implement agency recommendations such as improving ventilation systems, adding mobile classrooms, or reducing the number of students in each class without adequate funding. US President Joe Biden’s stimulus package includes $ 130 billion to pay for school improvements, staff needs, as well as protective measures. The pandemic has exhibited long-standing problems on school grounds, such as the absence of soap that is necessary for proper hand washing. This is embarrassing and we must invest in resources to fix it, whether we are in a pandemic or not. However, the specific issues of COVID-19 will continue to be an impediment, even if we address these grassroots issues. CDC’s science-based guidelines represent welcome advancements in letting schools know how to reopen. However, they may not help to put many small bodies in small chairs for a long time. The government should take more steps to ensure that all children can go to school in person this fall. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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