New data suggesting it's relatively safe to send younger children back to classrooms under strict mask-and-distance requirements could be a crucial element to reopening in-person schooling in the coming months. But the hesitation of teachers to return is understandable — age alone puts them in more danger than their students — which is why any national back-to-school campaign must include putting teachers at or near the front of the vaccination line. Currently, fewer than half the states do that.
Of all the ways the pandemic has jolted society, one of the most jolting is what it's done to kids forced out of the classroom and into remote schooling. The isolation from teachers and classmates, the difficulty of learning via computer screen, and in poor communities the lack of school lunches and other support services has impacted these kids' lives in devastating ways. And it's impacted their families. Remote learning isn't possible without a certain amount of home-schooling, even as parents struggle with pandemic-related changes in the workplace.
So the data reported recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding coronavirus transmission in schools is encouraging. The agency has studied schools that have continued operating in person and has found little viral transmission from classrooms in which precautions were diligently employed, as compared to settings like factories or restaurants.
School closings have been controversial, but critics shouldn't view this as an I told you so moment. An abundance of caution regarding schools was appropriate early on. And the new CDC findings don't mean it's safe to just throw open the schoolhouse doors.
To the contrary, the agency has found that low transmission rates rely on masks, at least six feet of distance between kids, keeping kids in the same groups (so if a quarantine is necessary, it won't affect the whole school) and increased air ventilation, which will be a challenge for poorer districts. The agency also found that extracurricular activities, especially contact sports, should continue to be limited.
The new findings should aid in the Biden administration's push to reopen schools, but not without addressing the real concerns of teachers who, due to the nature of the virus, are more at risk than their students. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, recently suggested that vaccinating teachers isn't necessarily a prerequisite for reopening schools, as long as other precautions are in place. But that's asking them to take risks that wouldn't be necessary if all states simply put teachers in the first tier of vaccine recipients. Currently, just 23 do, but in New Jersey, teachers are low-priority, even behind smokers.
Any nationwide reopening plan for schools should include prioritizing vaccinations for teachers, as well as providing the space and infrastructure improvements for schools to practice the proper precautions. Getting back to in-person classrooms is the right goal, but it must be done safely.
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