Schools Can Reopen Amid Pandemic, But Precautions Must Be Followed, CDC Says

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New data reveals that if masks are worn and social distancing is practiced during in-person learning, schools should be able to reopen, health officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a study published Tuesday.

The research, published in the online journal JAMA, has offered a framework for local officials, school administrators, and parents on ways their schools can open safely while limiting the spread of COVID-19. 

The actions recommended by the CDC scientists include minimizing community transmission and limit school-related activities that could increase transmission risks, such as indoor sports practices and competitions, NBC News reported.

”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."

According to the study, for the fall 2020 school term, there were significant geographic and district-to-district variations in educational delivery in grades K-12. Among the 13,597 of 14,944 districts that provided school reopening plans, 24% were fully online, 51% were using a hybrid model, and 17% were fully open for in-person instruction. Some districts included options for parents to opt-out. And, 51% of districts had students participating in school sports programs, NBC reported.

A high school wrestling tournament in Florida last month where 130 student-athletes from 10 schools gathered became a superspreader event and led to 38 infections, the study revealed. Through contact tracing, 41 more infections were identified, and one death was reported. The study cited that an investigation to track secondary transmissions is ongoing.

In order for teachers and students to continue to stay safe, CDC, scientists stress mask-wearing, maintaining physical distance, increased ventilation indoors and implementing a "hybrid" approach to learning to avoid overcrowding in classrooms.

Additional guidelines include expanded testing, so if a teacher or students become infected they can be identified quickly and isolated.

The fall semester data from schools in the U.S. and internationally also revealed that schools are not a contributing factor to the same type of outbreaks that have been reported at nursing homes, correctional facilities, and "high-density worksites," such as meatpacking plants, NBC reported. 

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

The New York Times reported that local officials also must be willing to impose limits on other settings — like indoor dining, bars, or poorly ventilated gyms — in order to keep infection rates low in the community at large, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in the journal JAMA and in a follow-up interview.

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