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Emily Oster: How to safely reopen schools this fall

The pandemic has exposed longstanding problems in school facilities.

(Ashley Gilbertson | The New York Times) A classroom in a school in New York, July 8, 2020. The new CDC guidance for bringing children back to class is a good first step, but it’ll take more to safely teach every student in person, every day.

Eleven months into the pandemic, schools remain closed in many parts of the country. With so many teachers still waiting to be vaccinated, the question of whether to reopen has been the subject of passionate debate in cities like Chicago, where teachers just returned to classrooms after lengthy negotiations. In San Francisco, the city attorney is suing the school district for its failure to offer in-person instruction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has acknowledged that in-person learning can be done safely, on Friday released guidance for how to reopen schools safely. Its recommendations include universal masking, hand washing, social distancing, contact tracing and cleaning.

According to the new guidance, in order to fully reopen elementary, middle and high schools for in-person instruction, rates of COVID-19 infection in a community must be very low; currently, few places in the United States meet the agency’s criteria. In the meantime, bringing children into classrooms part time or restricting attendance to younger children may remain the norm in many places.

The CDC has provided a good framework to get more students back to classrooms. But the guidance makes it difficult to do what’s best for the country’s children: to get all students, in all grades, into classrooms five days a week, in person.

The pandemic has surprised us again and again. But given where we stand now, by the fall a large share of adults will probably be vaccinated, and certainly all teachers and school staffs should have access to vaccines. Even with new variants of the coronavirus spreading, high vaccination rates are likely to have driven COVID-19 rates down (hopefully very far down). However, children, especially those under 12, are very unlikely to have been immunized by the fall. And we shouldn’t expect to see COVID-19 rates of zero, then or maybe ever.

That means American schools may face a different, and less perilous, situation this fall. As a result, the CDC should identify where it can update its guidance, once infection rates drop and inoculations continue, to ensure the largest number of children can be educated in person when the next academic year begins.

Unvaccinated children and the presence of some COVID-19 should not prevent schools from reopening somewhat normally. The data doesn’t support the need to wait for children to be vaccinated in order to return to school. Children are less likely than older people to be infected with the coronavirus and tend to have less serious illness, and the losses to them from missing in-person school are considerable.

One of the biggest logistical hurdles to reopening is the recommendation to maintain six feet of distance between children: Many school buildings lack the necessary extra space. The CDC guidance suggests this amount of distance is crucial; even when community spread is at its lowest, the agency’s guidelines recommend maintaining the six feet “to the greatest extent possible.” But some public health experts have argued that three feet is enough; it is possible that even less might work. Opening at full capacity may require schools either to use the three-foot rule or find ways to expand. The agency also should provide more explicit guidance on ventilation in classrooms. How many open windows are sufficient? Are HEPA filters required?

Schools can create cohorts, or pods, to limit the number of children who interact with one another; this reduces spread and also lessens the impact of a quarantine when children are exposed to COVID-19. However, cohorts are more difficult to manage with middle- and high-school students who change classes several times a day, and they may require more staffing and classrooms than schools have.

The CDC recommends that people who are exposed to COVID-19 should quarantine for as long as two weeks. This can substantially interrupt schools’ normal operations, because a single case in a classroom could require dozens of students to quarantine for weeks, disrupting learning and stressing teachers, staff and families.

If such quarantines prevent infections, few would argue with the agency. But some data has suggested there is very little evidence of infection of people who are exposed at school and proceed to quarantine at home. If this finding holds more broadly, it’s possible we might limit quarantines to people who’ve been in close contact with someone with COVID, or shorten the length of quarantines, in conjunction with testing and monitoring. Cohorts enable schools to limit interactions among students and staff, which makes it easier to conduct contact tracing when COVID-19 cases do emerge. Pods, or even just smaller class sizes, can also help by limiting how many people need to quarantine.

The schools that are currently open in the United States can provide some insight into what is and isn’t working. Some require maintaining three feet of distance between students, some require six feet, and some require none. Schools take different approaches to ventilation, testing for the coronavirus and quarantining. It’s possible to learn whether all of these efforts truly do mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but there has not been a nationwide system for schools to share their findings with one another in an organized fashion. A comprehensive, federal-level effort to collect and compare this information should inform the approach for a full reopening.

The new guidelines for the spring are a start, but keeping them in place for the fall will likely mean we cannot open all schools. This would be a tragedy for children. Schools cannot implement the agency’s recommendations — like upgrading ventilation systems, adding mobile classrooms or shrinking class sizes — without adequate funding. President Biden’s stimulus package includes $130 billion to pay for school upgrades, staff needs and safety measures.

The pandemic has exposed longstanding problems in school facilities, like the absence of soap that’s necessary for proper hand washing. This is shameful, and we must invest resources to fix it, pandemic or not. But the COVID-specific issues will continue to stand in the way, even if we address these baseline problems.

Science-based guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention represent welcome progress when it comes to telling schools how to open. But they may not result in putting many small bodies into small chairs for a long time. The administration should take more steps to ensure that all children can attend school in person this fall.

Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University and the organizer of the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard.

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