President Biden has continually intoned that we must “follow the science.” He needs to follow his own advice and lead on the issue of school reopening.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms what has been known for some time: that K-12 schools are not associated with Covid-19 transmission—either within the schools themselves or out into the community, from students—and that they can safely reopen for in-person learning. The CDC cites multiple studies documenting no connection between in-person instruction and community incidence of Covid-19 or hospitalization rates.
Opening schools represents little risk to kids. Children and adolescents, ages five to 17, are less likely than adults to be infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. And when children and adolescents are infected, they are much less likely than adults to develop symptoms, suffer severe disease, or die. As of January 27, the CDC reports only 203 deaths in the under-18 age group—not even a tenth of 1 percent of total U.S. Covid-19 deaths.
Nor do schools present a substantial risk to teachers and school staff. The CDC concluded that other adults, not students, are the primary sources of viral exposure among adults in school settings. Most Covid-19 cases detected in schools are acquired in the community and do not spread within the school. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 within schools is rare and is associated with failure to adhere to prevention strategies.
Perhaps the biggest news in the report concerns updates on prevention strategies. The CDC recommends five approaches but emphasizes two: universal mask use and physical distancing. From the outset, CDC has insisted on physical distancing of six feet between individuals. The requirement created major headaches for planners trying to reopen schools. Now the agency acknowledges that one meter—roughly three feet—is adequate.
The change in distancing guidance is long overdue. Most of the studies cited in the report date from 2020. The World Health Organization recommended schools could safely reopen with one-meter distancing back in May 2020. Last June, the American Academy of Pediatrics had already concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence” indicated the damage to children from school closures far outweighed the risks of re-opening. Keeping masked students three feet apart would be safe and preferable if requiring six feet would limit student attendance.
As of February, fewer than one in five school districts had fully reopened for in-person learning. About a quarter were still conducting online-only classes, and about half used a hybrid model with limited in-person instruction. Recalcitrant teachers and their powerful unions have refused to teach in person despite accumulating evidence that it is safe to do so. After months of unclear guidance, parents still have concerns about safety.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan may do little to remedy the situation. It includes $122 billion to help schools reopen—but schools could safely open now, at minimal cost, by providing masks and requiring three-feet separation. The law, moreover, requires local education agencies to develop and publish plans to return safely to in-person instruction within 30 days of receipt of their allocated funds, but it imposes no requirement that they actually implement the plans.
Senate Democrats previously rejected a Republican proposal requiring schools to reopen as a condition of receiving the new funds. Biden should not only push for this legislation but also direct his Department of Education to issue regulations requiring local education agencies to activate their in-person instruction plans within a short timeframe.
Meantime, the president needs to reassure parents that it is safe for their children to go back to school—and pressure teachers’ unions to get back to work. Health-care workers have labored for the past year in facilities with known Covid-19 cases. Some have died. For teachers, many of whom are already vaccinated, the risk of infection in schools is practically nil.
Enough. President Biden, open the schools now.
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