The CDC and Reopening Schools

Time flies when you’re self-isolating and having fun. As we all barrel through August and head toward September, the reopening of schools nationwide is at the forefront of discussion. Most students have already lost a great deal of class time from the previous semester and an entire class had to miss out on its graduation walk.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is clear on the critical role that schools have in the lives of children, teens, and adolescents:

“Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of communities, as they provide safe, supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to work.  Schools also provide critical services that help to mitigate health disparities, such as school meal programs, and social, physical, behavioral, and mental health services. School closure disrupts the delivery of these critical services to children and families, and places additional economic and psychological stress on families, which can increase the risk for family conflict and violence.” – CDC

It’s obvious that the best possible thing for school aged children and young adults is to get back to school. We don’t even need the CDC to tell us that. The problem is figuring out how to do that safely and that starts with a clear understanding of the danger posed by Covid-19.

Covid-19 symptoms for children

Just to start off, here’s what they have to say about the actual effects of the virus on children and teens:

Common COVID-19 symptoms among children include fever, headache, sore throat, cough, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, and diarrhea. However, many children and adults infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 are asymptomatic (meaning they have no signs or symptoms of illness). – CDC

While the threat of Covid should never be understated, their current assessment is that children are at a significantly lower risk than adults:

“Children appear to be at lower risk for contracting COVID-19 compared to adults. While some children have been sick with COVID-19, adults make up nearly 95% of reported COVID-19 cases. Early reports suggest children are less likely to get COVID-19 than adults, and when they do get COVID-19, they generally have a less serious illness. As of July 21, 2020, 6.6% of reported COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1% of COVID-19-related deaths are among children and adolescents less than 18 years of age in the United States.” – CDC

Of course, the biggest Covid fear was never that children and young adults were at an elevated risk. It’s that these children can contract the virus and pass it on to the older and younger populations, putting their lives in jeopardy.

The international response

The best way to guess at what can happen in the fall is to just look at places that have already reopened their schools. Unfortunately, the results are mixed:

“There is mixed evidence about whether returning to school results in increased transmission or outbreaks. For example, Denmark initially reported a slight increase in cases in the community after reopening schools and child care centers for students aged 2-12 years, followed by steady declines in cases among children between ages 1 and 19 years. In contrast, Israel experienced a surge of new cases and outbreaks in schools after reopening and relaxing social distancing measures; it is unclear what caused the increase in cases and what other mitigation measures the schools had implemented. In summer 2020, Texas reported more than 1,300 COVID-19 cases in childcare centers; however, twice as many staff members had been diagnosed as children, suggesting that children may be at lower risk of getting COVID-19 than adults. It is important to consider community transmission risk as schools reopen. Evidence from schools internationally suggests that school re-openings are safe in communities with low SARS-CoV-2 transmission rates. Computer simulations from Europe have suggested that school reopenings may further increase transmission risk in communities where transmission is already high.” – CDC

It turns out that communities with already high infection rates will see a spike. Communities with lower infection rates can see a smaller spike. It all depends on what’s going on outside of the school when you want to figure out what’s going to happen inside of it. That leads us to a response that has to be catered to each individual community as it reopens.

Expect an increase

The very first guideline release by the CDC is simply to expect an increase in Covid cases:

“International experiences have demonstrated that even when a school carefully coordinates, plans, and prepares, cases may still occur within the community and schools. Expecting and planning for the occurrence of cases of COVID-19 in communities can help everyone be prepared for when a case or multiple cases are identified.” – CDC

While that’s not overly comforting, it’s necessary. The first step in success is always planning for the worst possible scenario and it’s something that administrators and officials should be taking extremely seriously.

Guidelines based on community transmission

So, when it comes to actually reopening, here’s what parents, guardians, and families can expect their schools to look like:

“If there is no to minimal community transmission, reinforcing everyday preventive actions, ensuring proper ventilation within school facilities, including buses, and maintaining cleaning and disinfection practices remain important. These actions can help minimize potential exposure. Schools should also monitor absenteeism among teachers, staff, and students to identify trends and determine if absences are due to COVID-19, symptoms that led to quarantine, concerns about being in the school environment and personal health and safety, or positive test results. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should stay home and self-isolate for the timeframe recommended by public health officials. Anyone who has had close contact with someone who has tested positive or is symptomatic for COVID-19 should be tested and stay home until receiving a negative result, or stay home and monitor for symptoms.

If there is minimal to moderate community transmission, schools should follow the actions listed above, and continue implementing mitigation strategies such as social distancing, use of cloth faced coverings, reinforcing everyday preventive actions, and maintaining cleaning and disinfection. This also can include ensuring that student and staff groupings/cohorts are as static as possible and that mixing groups of students and staff is limited.

If there is substantial, controlled transmission, significant mitigation strategies are necessary. These include following all the actions listed above and also ensuring that student and staff groupings/cohorts are as static as possible with limited mixing of student and staff groups, field trips and large gatherings and events are canceled, and communal spaces (e.g., cafeterias, media centers) are closed.

If there is substantial, uncontrolled transmission, schools should work closely with local health officials to make decisions on whether to maintain school operations. The health, safety, and wellbeing of students, teachers, staff and their families is the most important consideration in determining whether school closure is a necessary step.  Communities can support schools staying open by implementing strategies that decrease a community’s level of transmission. However, if community transmission levels cannot be decreased, school closure is an important consideration. Plans for virtual learning should be in place in the event of a school closure.” – CDC

Be wary and communicate

While schools reopen and the inevitable spikes arise, the best thing that any parent, family member, student, or school staffer can do is to pay attention to the environment and be honest in their communication. If you feel ill or run a fever, take the appropriate action. The world can’t stop turning because of a pandemic, but we can certainly make sure that it’s turning as safely as possible.

Ed Sweeney
Staff Writer