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Dr Sanjay Gupta: A roadmap for in-person school emerges

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The decisions made in a hurry in March 2020 had to be reviewed when classes resumed after the summer holidays. Public and private schools across the country once again had to consider how to move forward, sometimes changing plans at the last minute as the amount of community outreach fluctuated and / or politics, both at the district level. school as of government, changed.

And as the situation has deteriorated, many experts have expressed growing concern about schools remaining closed. Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and director of the school’s Healthy Buildings program, said in January that the closure of schools “is nothing short of a national emergency.” Jennifer Nuzzo, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who has been working on pandemic preparedness for about 20 years, sees schools as a “critical infrastructure” and said it’s important that “we open them as soon as possible. possible “. it is important to strike a balance between known benefits and possible harms.

Difficult and unpopular decisions

Last August, the traditional time back to school, my wife and I chose not to return our girls at his school. At that time, I visited his school to talk to the principal about all the safety measures the school, with its considerable resources, was establishing: a mask warrant, hand hygiene stations, physical distancing plans. , frequent surface disinfection, outdoor classes when possible, and others.

But despite the time, effort, and care they put into resuming face-to-face classes, we decided to take a wait-and-see approach. A couple of well-known outbreaks in schools and summer camps in the early days of the pandemic, and the level of community that spread to our area at the time, sealed the deal for us.

Also, remember that schools closed in mid-March, when there were fewer than 3,300 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and just over 60 deaths. As schools began to open in the fall, the numbers were much worse and there was a real concern that the opening of schools could make the situation even worse. For me, there was too much uncertainty. And while it was becoming increasingly clear that young people were less likely to suffer from serious illness, I was concerned that one of my daughters might still be able to spread the virus unintentionally to her teachers or parents at home.

I have to tell you it wasn’t a popular decision with the under-18 set. My kids love school. For them, remote learning is a pale imitation of the actual offer in person and, almost as importantly, they enjoy being with their friends. But because my home is a benign dictatorship and not a democracy, remote learning through virtual school became the law of the land.

Then in October, when we were given another chance to send them back to campus, my wife and I changed direction. At that time, despite an increase in community outreach, we saw the good condition of the girls ’school and decided to relocate them. The mitigation strategies in place were not only symbolic, but also taken very seriously in school. Beyond masks and physical distancing, the school had taken the extra step of requiring weekly Covid tests. Although unfortunately many schools have never had this option, the ideas of the testing program gave me more comfort.

Liz Ball, our school’s associate vice president of strategic communications, confirmed the school’s success. In an email, he told me that from the start of the school year through Feb. 7, the average weekly positivity rate has been less than 0.5%, a much lower figure than the average weekly positivity rate in Fulton County. , Georgia, over the same time period (which was at least 3.3%), according to PCR test data from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Ball estimated that more than 45,000 weekly tests were performed, between October and February, on approximately 2,400 community members.

I recognize that my daughters ’school has more resources than many public (and private) schools to minimize Covid-19 disease, including the extra space to physically distance themselves, the warm southern climate to leave them take classes abroad and especially the ability to test extensively.

Roadmap to reopen successfully

But the evidence is really proof – and not the reason – that these mitigation efforts work.

“The consistent implementation of our COVID-19 security protocols, including quarantine, has proven successful in preventing the virus from entering campus and being transmitted to campus,” Ball wrote.

Security protocols very similar to those the CDC recently established them as guidelines: masking; physical distancing; hand washing; clean facilities and improve ventilation; as well as contact tracking, isolation, and quarantine.

“With the launch of this operational strategy, CDC does not require schools to reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools with a roadmap that has long been needed to do so safely under the different levels of community disease, ”said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. when he announced the guidelines in February.

And the few studies on transmission in school seem to prove it, showing that disease rates in schools are lower than in the community. A study of 17 Wisconsin schools found that the Covid-19 rate at the school was 37% lower than that of the surrounding community. Another study of New York City schools found only a positivity rate of 0.4% from October to December, despite increasing cases in the community. And a study of 11 North Carolina school districts found only 32 cases of school transmission to about 100,000 students and staff, none of which involved a child infecting an adult.

According to the American Red Cross, Covid-19 antibodies are present in approximately 1 in 5 blood donations from unvaccinated people.

In fact, a new report analyzing 130 studies on school reopening found that schools can safely reopen if they follow mitigation strategies, such as the use of masks and social distancing. The Report – Is It Safe to Reopen Schools? An extensive review of the research, written by education and policy expert John Bailey, even found that when it comes to physically distancing yourself, 3 and 6 feet may be enough.

Bailey notes that the school districts of Indiana, Virginia and Massachusetts have adopted a 3-foot standard.

And, according to a federal official, the CDC is reviewing new data, including a study published last week that showed “no significant difference” in Covid-19 rates in Massachusetts public schools that had implemented rules of social distancing from 3 feet compared to those he held 6 feet: to see if the rules of physical distancing in schools should be changed. This would align it with World Health Organization school guidelines, which suggest a minimum distance of 1 meter (just over 3 feet) to schools.

The slow return of face-to-face learning

Some of the largest public school systems in the country, including Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta, are preparing or have already resumed face-to-face learning. And the money the Biden administration has promised to the K-12 will allow school districts to begin implementing CDC mitigation measures. This money, for example, could be used to buy and, in some cases, install PPE, such as plastic desk dividers, hand hygiene stations, classroom air purifiers, and masks for students and teachers, as well as to pay the costs related to all additional cleaning and disinfection.

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To keep all school districts on the same page and up to date, Biden Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Friday, during CNN’s special “Back to School: Kids , Covid and the Struggle to Reopen, “a National Summit on School Reopening was scheduled for” before the end of March. “

“We will have experts and we will have, as you said, districts that have been successful in doing this, talking to other districts and sharing their best practices, but also sharing the challenges they had so we can learn from those districts,” Cardona explained. He also noted that his department is establishing an exchange center with best practices around reopening, including providing social and emotional support to students and educators who “have experienced a lot of trauma this past year.”

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the United States, is confident in science, government funding, and the ability to vaccinate teachers. During the same CNN special, he said teachers “want nothing more than to be in person with their students. So they trained them to teach and work with them and they miss them. They want to come back in person.”

But, Pringle said, teachers want it done safely. “What we said a year ago, a year ago now, we’ve been asking for the resources we need to do that,” he said. “And the smile you see on my face right now, Jake, is the light at the end of this very dark tunnel.”

My wife and I spent the evening talking about this article and it expanded into a discussion with the three girls about the last few months of school. Interestingly, my youngest daughter (who is now 11 years old) never really got into the virtual life of learning, while my eldest (who is now 15 years old) sometimes preferred it. My average daughter, always nice, told me she could go anyway.

I was worried that this last year would see an interrupted childhood (it has been one of my biggest concerns), but overall it seems that the girls have prospered and even achieved some resilience through the challenges they face. they faced. They are also very aware of how lucky they are to have had options at various times during this last year that were simply not allowed to many other students across the country.

It will be a long time before we know the full impact of this pandemic on their lives and mental health, but if history is any indication, it was the young people who were most adaptable after the previous outbreaks and pandemics. of those who seriously accept some new state of normalcy when it was finally safe to do so.

Andrea Kane of CNN Health contributed to this report.

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