USA/ 12 February 2021/ Source/ https://www.nytimes.com/
In many places, the debates over reopening are fraught. But in a survey, experts broadly agreed that elementary schools don’t need vaccines to open safely.
Claire Cain Miller, Margot Sanger-Katz and
Many of the common preconditions to opening schools — including vaccines for teachers or students, and low rates of infection in the community — are not necessary to safely teach children in person, a consensus of pediatric infectious disease experts said in a new survey.
Instead, the 175 experts — mostly pediatricians focused on public health — largely agreed that it was safe enough for schools to be open to elementary students for full-time and in-person instruction now. Some said that was true even in communities where Covid-19 infections was widespread, as long as basic safety measures were taken. Most important, they said, were universal masking, physical distancing, adequate ventilation and avoidance of large group activities.
The experts were surveyed by The New York Times in the last week. Depending on various metrics, between 48 percent and 72 percent say the extent of virus spread in a community is not an important indicator of whether schools should be open, even though many districts still rely on those metrics. Schools should close only when there are Covid-19 cases in the school itself, most said.
“There is no situation in which schools can’t be open unless they have evidence of in-school transmission,” said Dr. David Rosen, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis.
The risks of being out of school were far greater, many of the experts said. “The mental health crisis caused by school closing will be a worse pandemic than Covid,” said Dr. Uzma Hasan, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey.
For the most part, these responses match current federal guidance, which does not mention vaccines, and reflect significant scientific evidence that schools are not a major source of spread for children or adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release new recommendations Friday on how schools can safely operate, and the Biden administration has prioritized opening schools.
But the expert consensus in the survey is at odds with the position of certain policymakers, school administrators, parent groups and teachers’ unions. Some in these groups have indicated that they do not want to return to school buildings even next fall, when it’s likely that teachers will be able to be vaccinated, though not most students. Some districts have faced fierce resistance to reopening, particularly in large cities, where teachers have threatened to strike if they are called back to school buildings.
And some experts concurred that open schools pose risks, particularly to the adults working there, and said that many parts of the country had not yet controlled the virus enough to safely open.
“Just because school opening isn’t causing higher levels of community transmission doesn’t mean that there isn’t individual risk to teachers and staff,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a visiting professor of health policy at George Washington University. “If we had wanted schools to safely reopen, we should have worked hard as a society to keep transmission rates down and to invest resources in schools.”
About half of the nation’s students are still learning from home, and while a majority of districts are offering at least some in-person learning and more are trying to reopen this spring, many are offering students just a few hours a day or a few days a week.
The mismatch between the experts’ preferred policies and the rules governing school opening in many districts reflects political considerations and union demands, but also changes in scientists’ understanding of the virus. Many school policies were developed months ago, before growing evidence that Covid-19 does not spread easily in schools that adopt basic safety precautions. The guidance could change again, they cautioned: Nearly all expressed some concern that new coronavirus variants could disrupt schools’ plans to be open this spring or fall.
More than two-thirds of the respondents said they had school-aged children, and half had children in school at least some of the time. Over all, they were more likely than not to support their own schools being open. About 85 percent of those in communities where schools were open full time said their district had made the right call, while just one-third of those in places where schools were still closed said that had been the right choice.
“School closure in spring 2020 was the right decision: We did not know much about Covid at that time and did not know what role kids may play in transmission,” said Dr. Mitul Kapadia, director of pediatric physical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “We do know now, and know schools can open safely. Fear is guiding decisions even against the guidance and recommendations from the medical and public health community.”
The point of most agreement was requiring masks for everyone. All the respondents said it was important, and many said it was a simple solution that made the need for other preconditions to opening less essential.