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CDC officials say schools can re-open during pandemic — but precautions are crucial

But opening schools safely also requires controlling the virus's spread within communities, the scientists said.
Image: Children school mask
Students wear masks while walking to class to begin their school day in Godley, Texas on Aug.5, 2020.LM Otero / AP file

Schools should reopen as soon as possible if social distancing and mask-wearing can be maintained to keep in-person learning safe, health officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a study published Tuesday.

The research, published online in the journal JAMA, provides a framework for how to open schools safely while limiting the spread of Covid-19. Research supports "a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery," according to the study.

The recommendations provide some clarity about a contentious topic and offer much-needed guidance for local officials, school administrators and parents.

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But opening schools safely also requires controlling the virus's spread within communities, the scientists said. As a result, they recommended maintaining other rules that are designed to reduce transmission but have been politically unpopular, such as restrictions on indoor dining.

"Decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the U.S.," the scientists wrote. "Some of these decisions may be difficult."

The researchers said fall semester data from schools in the U.S. and internationally show that schools are not responsible for the same type of worrisome outbreaks that have been reported at nursing homes, correctional facilities and "high-density worksites," such as meatpacking plants.

"There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission," they wrote. And keeping schools closed "could adversely affect students' academic progress, mental health, and access to essential services."

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The CDC scientists said that while a return to in-person learning is recommended, schools should limit activities that could increase the risk of transmission, such as indoor sports practices and competitions.

The study cited a high school wrestling tournament in Florida last month that brought together 130 student-athletes from 10 schools. The tournament became a superspreader event and led to 38 infections. Through contact tracing, 41 more infections were identified, and one death was reported. An investigation to track secondary transmissions continues, according to the study.

To protect students and teachers, the CDC scientists said schools should require certain mitigation measures, such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, increasing ventilation indoors and using a "hybrid" approach that combines in-person and online learning when necessary to avoid crowding in classrooms. The guidelines also said testing should be expanded so infected teachers or students can be identified quickly and isolated.