CDC: Classrooms can reopen if schools and community embrace safety measures

Parents and their children line along 10th Street N.E. near Piedmont Park on  Sunday, December 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Parents and their children line along 10th Street N.E. near Piedmont Park on Sunday, December 6, 2020, during a rally calling for the safe, immediate opening of Atlanta and DeKalb County schools. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In journal article today, researchers say evidence shows schools are not major COVID-19 sources

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention boosted the argument for reopening school buildings Tuesday, saying the preponderance of evidence suggests it can be done if basic safety efforts, including mask wearing and social distancing, are followed with fidelity.

Many Georgia districts have not mandated masks and have acknowledged that social distancing is not always possible. A failure to follow the health recommendations to assure safe classrooms has pitted Georgia educators against school boards and superintendents that either don’t believe in masks or don’t want to buck doubting constituents.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

CDC researchers, writing today in the Journal JAMA, also stressed communities must do their share to bring down transmission to reopen schools, which should include limiting restaurant dining.

The JAMA article states:

As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission...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 in schools.

Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission (eg, restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants). In addition, all recommended mitigation measures in schools must continue: requiring universal face mask use, increasing physical distance by dedensifying classrooms and common areas, using hybrid attendance models when needed to limit the total number of contacts and prevent crowding, increasing room air ventilation, and expanding screening testing to rapidly identify and isolate asymptomatic infected individuals. Staff and students should continue to have options for online education, particularly those at increased risk of severe illness or death if infected with SARS-CoV-2.

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The CDC researchers caution against a full return to school activities, such as indoor sports:

Decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the US. Some of these decisions may be difficult. They include a commitment to implement community-based policies that reduce transmission when SARS-CoV-2 incidence is high (eg, by restricting indoor dining at restaurants), and school-based policies to postpone school-related activities that can increase risk of in-school transmission (eg, indoor sports practice or competition).

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“It’s not going to be safe to have a pizza party with a group of students,” Margaret Honein, a member of the C.D.C.’s Covid-19 emergency response team and the first author of the article, said told The New York Times. “But outdoor cross-country, where distance can be maintained, might be fine to continue.”

The CDC conclusion was bolstered by new research out of Duke University and the University of North Carolina that suggests schools can return to face-to-face if they mitigate COVID-19 transmission on campuses, despite the level of COVID-19 cases in the community, especially when everyone in the building wears masks, washes hands, and practice physical distancing.

The Duke-UNC study appears in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers studied secondary transmission of COVID-19 in 11 North Carolina districts that held in-person instruction in the first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year and identified minimal COVID-19 transmission in the schools -- far lower than the rate of community spread.

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