We all want our children to be able to go back to school. What we don’t want is for them – or their teachers – to contract COVID-19.
There is no easy, let alone perfect, solution, which is why there is no clear way forward a year after the pandemic began. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines designed to serve as a roadmap for dealing with this difficult part of our pandemic.
Under these new guidelines, all schools offering face-to-face learning should prioritize the universal, correct use of masks and physical distancing. The CDC also notes that three other strategies are essential to safe in-person teaching: hand washing, cleaning school facilities, and contact tracing. Bringing these five strategies together can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
Below are key highlights from the CDC guidelines.
Children have to be in school
I think we all agree that distance learning pales in comparison to face-to-face teaching for the vast majority of our children and teens. It’s not just about education, which is clearly better when you have the ability to interact personally with other students, but it’s also about equity. So many families struggle with access to the technology, learning space, and support necessary to make distance learning even vaguely successful. For so many children and communities, the pandemic has resulted in learning losses that will have far-reaching consequences.
There are also implications for mental health. Being isolated at home has led to a significant increase in depression and anxiety among children and adolescents – and a decline in the mental and economic well-being of families in general, as many parents have had to leave their jobs to stay at home with children.
The CDC guidelines call for the opening of schools to be prioritized over economically or socially motivated openings. The more a community opens up, the higher the risk of transmitting COVID-19, which also affects schools. We can’t have it all. We have to choose what is most important to us.
Elementary school children are not as high a risk as older students
While our understanding of COVID-19 continues to evolve, it appears that younger children are less likely to get sick and are less likely to transmit the virus than teenagers and adults. Because of this, the CDC argues that they should be given personal instructions, not remotely.
In decisions to reopen schools, the level of community transfer plays a role
The CDC divides the spread of COVID-19 in the community into four levels based on cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests. The levels are
- low (0 to 9 cases per 100,000, less than 5% positive tests)
- moderate (10 to 49 cases per 100,000, 5% to 7.9% positive tests)
- significant (50 to 99 cases per 100,000, 8% to 9.9% positive tests)
- high (more than 100 cases per 100,000, 10% or more positive tests).
For communities with low or moderate prevalenceThe CDC believes that K-12 should be taught fully face-to-face for all grade levels, with precautions such as masking and social distancing being taken.
For communities with significant or high prevalenceThe CDC recommends a hybrid model in elementary schools. For middle and high schools, it recommends Hybrid for communities with significant distribution and all-remote for high schools.
Masks, distancing, hand washing, ventilation and cleaning are key
The CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose, washes frequently, and sets a goal of six feet physical distance.
In areas of low or moderate expansion, they recommend distancing yourself “as far as possible”. They also promote ventilation (e.g. by opening windows and doors) and cleaning common surfaces.
This is an area where the devil is very into the details. It is difficult to get elementary school students back into face-to-face classes while physically distancing them. This also applies to getting adequate ventilation in old buildings or figuring out exactly how to do effective cleaning while doing all the other work of running a school at the same time.
Flexibility is required
Some children need distance learning because their health or the health of family members puts them at greater risk of developing serious COVID-19 disease. Some schools will need more support than others. The realities of this pandemic and our society contradict simple recommendations and we need to recognize this and work with it.
Tests are also required
Ideally, schools should have access to tests for students and teachers with symptoms, as well as routine exams to identify asymptomatic cases. In addition, they should work closely with local health ministries to isolate active cases and conduct contact tracing and quarantine if necessary.
This is another area where the devil is in the details. Testing costs money, and not all communities have direct access to testing and the ability to get results quickly.
Vaccinating teachers is important, but not required
Teachers are a vital workforce and ideally everyone should be vaccinated against COVID-19. In reality, however, it is unlikely that all teachers will be vaccinated before the end of the school year. The CDC argues that, first, the overall risk for teachers is low (especially for elementary school teachers); and second, that our children are losing too much education for us to wait.
Understandably, many teachers are concerned about their health and the health of their families and don’t want to be forced to choose between this and the education of their students.
Even if the vaccination provides a light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the tunnel and may still be there for many months. We cannot just wait until it is all over to meet our children’s needs. We have to come together to take care of them. After all, our children are our future.
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