Saturday, December 3, 2022

New school guidelines around COVID-19: what parents need to know

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We all want our children to be able to go back to school. What we don’t want is for them – or their teachers – to get sick from COVID-19.

There is no easy solution, let alone a perfect one, and that is why, a year after the start of the pandemic, there is no clear solution. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published new directives serve as a roadmap to navigate this difficult part of our pandemic journey.

According to these new guidelines, all schools offering in-person learning should prioritize correct use of masks and physical distancing. The CDC also notes that three other strategies are essential for safe face-to-face teaching: hand washing, clean school facilities, and contact follow-up. Layering these five strategies can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Below are the main highlights of the CDC guidelines.

Children must be in school

I think we all agree that remote school is a pittance compared to in-person education for the vast majority of our children and teens. It’s not just a matter of education, which is clearly better when one has the ability to interact in person with other students, but also a matter of equity. So many families have struggled to access the technology, the learning space, and the support needed to make distance learning, however vaguely, a success; for so many children and communities, the pandemic has resulted in a loss of learning that will have long-term consequences.

There are also consequences in terms of mental health. Being isolated at home led to a significant increase in depression and anxiety in children and adolescents – and a decrease in mental and economic well-being of families in general, given the number of parents who have had to leave their jobs to stay at home with their children.

What the CDC guidelines ask is to prioritize opening schools over openings more economically or socially. The more a community opens, the greater the risk of transmission of COVID-19, which also affects schools. We can’t have it all; we have to choose what is most important to us.

Elementary school children are not as high a risk as older students

Although our understanding of COVID-19 is still evolving, it appears that young children are less likely to get sick and less likely to transmit the virus than adolescents and adults. For this reason, the CDC argues that they should receive instruction in person, not remotely.

The amount of community transmission matters in decisions to reopen schools

The CDC stratifies the community spread of COVID-19 into four levels based on cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests. The levels are

  • low (0-9 cases per 100,000, less than 5% positive tests)
  • moderate (10 to 49 cases per 100,000, 5% to 7.9% of positive tests)
  • substantial (50 to 99 cases per 100,000, 8% to 9.9% positive tests)
  • high (more than 100 cases per 100,000, 10% or more of positive tests).

For communities with weak or moderate spread, the CDC believes Kindergarten to Grade 12 should open up to full in-person education for all grade levels, with precautions such as masking and social distancing in place.

For communities with substantial or high spread, the CDC recommends a hybrid model in elementary schools. For middle and high schools, he recommends the hybrid for the widespread communities and all remote for the upper ones.

Masks, removal, hand washing, ventilation and cleaning are essential

The CDC recommends that everyone wear masks that cover their mouth and nose, wash frequently, and set a physical distance goal of six feet.

In areas of weak or moderate diffusion, they recommend to distance oneself “to the greatest extent possible”. They also encourage ventilation (for example by opening windows and doors) and cleaning of common surfaces.

This is an area where the devil is really in the details. It’s hard to bring elementary school students back to full in-person instruction while still physically distancing themselves. The same goes for ensuring adequate ventilation in older buildings or figuring out exactly how to do an effective cleaning while handling all the other work of running a school.

Flexibility is needed

Some children need distance education because their medical condition, or the health of their family members, puts them at a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. Some schools will need more support than others. The realities of this pandemic and our society defy simple recommendations, and we will need to realize this and work with it.

Tests are also necessary

Ideally, schools should have access to testing for students and teachers with symptoms, as well as routine screening to identify asymptomatic cases. In addition, they should work closely with local health departments to isolate active cases, and perform contact tracing and quarantine if necessary.

This is another area where the devil is in the details. Testing costs money, and not all communities have easy access to testing and the opportunity to get results quickly.

Vaccination of teachers is important but not compulsory

Teachers are essential workers and ideally everyone should be vaccinated against COVID-19. But the reality is that all teachers are unlikely to be vaccinated before the end of the school year. The CDC argues that first, the overall risk to teachers is low (especially elementary teachers); and second, that our children are losing too much education for us to wait.

Understandably, many teachers worry about their health and that of their families and do not want to be forced to choose between that and the education of their students.

Even though immunization provides a light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the tunnel, and maybe we will stay there for many months to come. We can’t just wait for everything to be done to meet the needs of our children; we have to come together to take care of them. Our children are our future, after all.

Follow me on twitter @drClaire

The post office New school guidelines around COVID-19: what parents need to know appeared first on Harvard Health Blog.


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