CDC Urges Schools to Reopen, Adding Fuel to Fire

There’s very little evidence that Covid is spread in schools, the agency says, but many teachers still claim that reopening them isn’t safe. 

Parents and children gather in front of New York’s City Hall to protest the closing of public schools on Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

(CN) — The likelihood of Covid transmission in schools is very low and teachers should go back to work there now, according to a paper published Tuesday by top researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is certain to add fuel to the growing controversy over school reopenings. 

So far, “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the researchers said.  

The CDC is eager to get the message out that schools need to reopen, said Thomas Skinner, an agency spokesman. 

“In-person schooling is critical,” Skinner emphasized. “Kids need to be and should be in school for many reasons provided schools can strictly adhere to recommended guidelines.” 

The paper explains that schools were closed everywhere out of caution in early 2020 when little was known about the danger, but “accumulating data now suggest a path forward” to restart classroom learning. 

Nationwide there is a highly confusing patchwork of school rules. Four states including Texas and Florida have mandated open schools statewide; six states including California have issued statewide partial closures; and the other 40 states have left the decisions up to local boards, according to a survey by Education Week. 

But conflicts have arisen, including recent fights between schools and teachers’ unions in Chicago and New Jersey that don’t want their members out on the front lines of the virus war. 

In Los Angeles, school superintendent Austin Beutner said Monday that schools shouldn’t reopen until all teachers and staff have received a vaccine, and the local teachers’ union has taken the position that even that won’t be enough if the rate of Covid in the city is still high.  

“A safe path to reopening must include low community transmission and infection rates,” the United Teachers Los Angeles said

Less than a quarter of U.S. students are currently in school full-time, according to data from Burbio, a company that tracks school calendars nationwide. President Biden has set a goal of “getting a majority of K-8 schools safely open” in the first 100 days of his tenure. 

The CDC paper, published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association, cites three studies: one from Mississippi that found opening schools wasn’t associated with increased infections, another of 90,000 students in North Carolina that found that school transmission was “very rare” and there were no instances of staff getting sick from being exposed to students, and finally in rural Wisconsin where Covid-19 incidence was found to be “lower in schools than in the community.” 

The paper also cited a survey of 17 countries by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which determined that “schools were not associated with accelerating community transmission.”  

Not all the data have been positive, however. A school-related outbreak was reported in Israel, but the researchers attributed it to crowded classrooms without social distancing, exemptions from mask requirements and “continuous air conditioning that recycled interior air in closed rooms during a heat wave.” 

The paper also warned that indoor athletics raised risk levels and should be curtailed: “Contact during both practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, increases risk,” it says. 

Nevertheless, “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings.” 

President Biden refused to wade directly into the controversy with teachers’ unions Monday but did say that schools should be made safe before they reopen, which includes Covid-testing requirements, new ventilation systems and improved sanitation. 

“The teachers I know, they want to work, they just want to work in a safe environment, and as safe as you can rationally make it, and we can do that,” Biden said.  

“We should be able to open every school, kindergarten through eighth grade, if in fact we administer these tests,” he added. 

Leslie Boggs, president of the National PTA, said in an interview that “reopening schools for in-person instruction is vital to ensure the continuity of education for every child, particularly those who do not have adequate access to technology.”

But even if in-person classes do start up again, “students will likely return to schools with serious gaps in their learning and retention and unique social-emotional needs,” the PTA warned in a statement

“Schools must be prepared to identify indicators, such as symptoms of trauma, learning loss and [lack of] retention and have the requisite funding and community partnerships to effectively support the student and their family as reopening occurs,” the PTA said. 

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