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What parents should know about the CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools

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Updated on August 8, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published new guidance last week encouraging schools to reopen in the fall.

The new tools and resources released by the CDC include detailed recommendations on how schools can safely reopen.

In a statement posted Thursday, the CDC says children are less likely to experience a severe form of COVID-19. The statement also drew controversy as some, including the American Federation of Teachers, calling it overtly political.

The CDC pushed for school reopenings due to the setbacks — socially, emotionally, and behaviorally — kids can experience from a prolonged lack of in-person learning.

Additionally, children are thought not to be a primary source of transmission, according to the CDC.

A spokesperson with the CDC told Healthline that the new guidelines lay “out the evidence about kids’ infectivity and the impact of reopening schools in other countries. It also lays out the importance of school for students, with emphasis on mental, social, and emotional health.”

The CDC also plans to update its guidance as health officials learn more about COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is a new disease that we learn more about every day. As CDC learns more we will continue to update our guidance, resource, and tools to ensure that we are providing the best available data and science to help slow and ultimately stop the spread of COVID-19,” the CDC spokesperson said.

Here’s what experts think about the CDC’s stance on reopening schools.

What doctors think about the guidance

COVID-19 has continued to rip through communities, affecting people of all ages.

Take a look at what’s taken place at some summer camps. Even camps that were adhering to safety measures — like physical or social distancing, mask-wearing, and handwashing — had to shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

In Florida, some experts attribute the rising infection rate among children to summer camps.

On the other hand, we haven’t seen major issues with day care centers being open, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar for Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Health experts say reopening schools is a tricky course to navigate and should be executed carefully on a local level.

There’s no way we can get the risk to zero, so we need to find a way to get kids back to school safely, according to Adalja.

“This is going to be a risk-calculated type of process where we’re weighing the risk of the disease versus the risk of keeping people out of schools, and I think it’s not an easy decision to make,” Adalja said.

Dr. Thomas Murray, a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious disease doctor and associate professor at Yale University School of Medicine, says it’ll take careful planning and preparation.

“While I agree in-person education is preferred and has many advantages, it is not straightforward. The risks of COVID-19 spread must be weighed against the benefits of in-person education,” Murray said.

One of the key points the CDC makes in its new guidance is that children tend to have a lower risk for getting seriously sick from COVID-19.

“What we’ve seen so far, younger children [are] less likely to spread infection,” Adalja said.

Dr. Matthew Heinz, a hospitalist and internist in Tucson, Arizona, says we’re still learning about how children spread the virus, and there’s no consensus.

When groups gather together no matter the age, there’s a higher risk of transmission.

According to Heinz, a recent study found that 10- to 19-year-olds spread the virus just as much as adults.

Even if children spread the virus less readily, some doctors still expect we’ll see new surges tied back to school reopenings.

“Children may not spread the virus as much as adults, but there will still be an increase in new cases once schools reopen in an area, as other countries have observed,” Heinz said.

Adults who work in the schools will have an increased risk for getting sick as will those who have close contact with kids and their teachers, Heinz notes.

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Here’s what schools need to think about

“Unfortunately, I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all recommendation that makes sense,” Murray said.

Murray thinks schools should evaluate a few factors when deciding if and when to reopen.

First is the level of transmission in the community. “The more disease in the community, the higher the risk of bringing large groups together and increasing exposure and continuing disease transmission,” Murray said.

Adalja says he thinks schools can reopen safely in most places, but it may be hard to do in areas with increasing outbreaks.

For a school to safely reopen, Heinz says a region must have reduced infections for at least 2 weeks.

The second factor to consider is the preventive measures the school is able to enforce — like mask-wearing, physical distancing, and outdoor activities.

Adalja says schools will need to consider forming learning pods, adjusting how kids access cafeterias, and staggering drop-off times.

The CDC released steps school administers can take to mitigate the risk of exposure. They include tips for “cohorting,” or putting students into “pods” where they only interact with a small group of peers.

Other tips include alternating students’ schedules, taking the bus, and physical distancing.

Lastly is for schools to figure out how they’d respond if a student or staff member were to contract an infection.

Even with low levels of community transmission, there will be coronavirus cases among staff and students, says Murray.

“This includes who gets quarantined, criteria for return to school of children with fever or symptoms if testing is not easily accessible, and criteria for school closure,” Murray said.

Health officials will need to look at each school, and each school district, in a unique manner to determine the best path forward.

To prevent future outbreaks, local health officials will need to conduct viral surveillance and contact tracing before schools open.

Each family should assess their own risk

The CDC published a checklist last week to help families, guardians, and caregivers plan and prepare for the school year.

Families living with an older or immunocompromised person should weigh the risks and benefits of their children going back to school.

Heinz says if any families are especially vulnerable, children may want to continue their education from home.

If the kids do go back to school, at-risk family members should be isolated for their protection, Heinz says.

“Unfortunately, asymptomatic transmission means that a child who appears well could unknowingly spread disease to high-risk close contacts,” Murray said.

Adalja says those who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids back to school should have a comparable at-home option.

It won’t be an easy decision to make.

“It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be individualized,” Adalja said, “but we have to find a way to make schools safe in this environment.”

The bottom line

The CDC released new resources and tools regarding how schools can safely reopen in the fall.

Health experts say each school will need to look at local transmission, the safety measures they can enforce, and a preventive plan before opening up.

Each family should weigh the risks and benefits and determine what their best option is.