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Will schools be safe this fall? Experts weigh in

Denis Farrell

Teachers, parents and, yes, even children are anxiously waiting for schools to reopen in the fall, but the biggest questions on everyone’s mind are when and how that can happen safely.

With so much still unknown about how coronavirus affects children and how it spreads, CNN asked health and education experts about the pros and cons of reopening schools.

Are there risks?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN he hesitated to make any broad statements about the safety of schools reopening, but said that conversation needs to happen with a particular focus on the infection level in each community.

“When you talk about children going back to school and their safety, it really depends on the level of viral activity, and the particular area that you’re talking about. What happens all too often, understandably, but sometimes misleadingly, is that we talk about the country as a whole in a unidimensional way.”

“There’s no ‘no-risk’ activity,” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN. “Staying home is not a no-risk activity, particularly if the parent’s working. So, it’s a question of can we mitigate the risk.”

“Are we looking for absolute safety?” asked Dr. Susan Coffin, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “If we’re looking for absolute safety, we might choose to hunker down and wait until there’s no more virus, and then begin to reopen schools exceptionally cautiously. But many educators and public health experts in the United States have been focused on strategies where we can have children come back together for in-person learning sooner rather than later.”

Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said she thinks there’s a false sense of security based on the relatively low number of cases of Covid-19 in children. “I don’t know if people are really connecting the dots to how that will increase the risk and increase potential exposures for family members at home,” she said.

What does the data say about kids passing Covid to others?

The data has consistently shown that coronavirus affects children less often and with less severity in comparison to adults. As of June 10, less then 5 percent of all coronavirus cases were children under the age of 18, according to data from the CDC. There is a small percentage of children who have a more severe reaction to coronavirus, and develop Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, but the rate of this complication is so far extremely low.

What remains unclear is the extent to which children infected with the virus can pass it onto others.

“The big unanswered question is, how efficiently can a child who’s infected with coronavirus pass it on to other kids and to teachers and family members at home,” Cicero told CNN.

Fauci seemed to think that keeping schools closed in general was not necessary.

“Children can get infected, so, yes, so you’ve got to be careful,” he said. “You got to be careful for them and you got to be careful that they may not spread it. Now, to make an extrapolation that you shouldn’t open schools, I think is a bit of a reach.”

Do the benefits of sending children back to school outweigh the risks?

School closures due to the coronavirus pandemic have impacted more than 56 million public and private school students in the US, and 20 million of those kids rely on school lunches.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who leads one of the largest unions for teachers and school staff in the country, said nothing will be a 100% guarantee of safety.

“It’s really important to get [kids] back into the community,” Weingarten told CNN. “For teachers, they miss their kids and they know that the current, remote way of education has its limitations.”

Sharfstein, who recently co-wrote an article pushing for schools to safely reopen to mitigate academic losses of the “Covid slide” said he believes educating children is one of the most important things society does.

“In all the talk about ‘are barber shops going to open up’ and ‘what about theme parks’, we should be organizing to make sure the kids get what they deserve. The benefits are very important.”

How can schools reopen with so many unknowns?

Many of the plans to reopen that have been announced so far involve social distancing, PPE, testing, isolation plans, and regular cleaning protocols. Some schools are also exploring hybrid models combining in-person and virtual learning. Such a major shift in how schools run will likely mean more teachers and resources will be needed.

Weingarten said she is frustrated by the lack of federal guidance and funding so far.

“I’ve never experienced a situation where we’ve gotten no guidance from the federal government, we’ve gotten nothing from Betsy DeVos, and we get very little from the CDC and very little from HHS,” she said.

Department of Education spokesperson Angela Morabito said school reopenings were being left to state and local officials, as closings had been. “Secretary DeVos has said that going back to school in the fall may very well look quite different this year than it has in the past, and that schools might choose to adopt hybrid models that combine distance education with in-person instruction,” she said. “The Department is providing guidance, flexibility, and resources to state and local leaders so that they are equipped to make the best decisions for students and staff.”

Orange County Classroom Teachers Association President Wendy Doromal in Orlando, Florida, said any hybrid option will cost more.

“We even have to hire new teachers if you divide up rooms and students, but how can you even do that because our schools are overcrowded? There’s so many questions,” Doromal told CNN.

Cicero echoed the need for more funding. “That’s also an incredible stressor and expense for schools to try to prepare all new systems to have these mass gatherings every day and keep everybody safe and infection free,” she said.

In addition to more funding, experts also say all reopening models must include the flexibility for families to make individual decisions based on their own risk assessments. Therefore schools must have a fully online option to accommodate the students, teachers, and family members who are considered high risk and do not want to attend school in person.

Unanswered questions regarding children and Covid

Research seeking to answer how coronavirus spreads among children and whether they are less susceptible to infection so far has been inconclusive.

In Germany, researchers found that children are just as infectious as adults, and therefore cautioned against an “unlimited reopening.”

A study from the Netherlands however concluded that children play a minor role in the spread of the virus.

In a recent study from China, scientists analyzed data from Wuhan and Shanghai to find that while children were roughly a third as likely to contract coronavirus in comparison to adults, going to school gave them three times as many chances to become infected, effectively making children just as much at risk as adults.

“While proactive school closures cannot interrupt transmission on their own, they can reduce peak incidence by 40-60% and delay the epidemic,” the study found.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health launched its own study last month to get further clarification on whether children are less likely to catch coronavirus than adults. The results will not be available until at least December.

“We’re kind of down to the wire at this point,” said Cicero. “It seems like we’ve been complacent in not really driving forward with the research that we need to figure out whether kids, once they go back to school, are likely to transmit the virus back to their family members or to their teachers and other school workers.”

This story has been updated to clarify the size of the American Federation of Teachers.

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