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Opinion The benefits of in-person learning still outweigh the risks

Signs encourage mask wearing and social distancing at Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Ga., on July 23. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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There are some differences between the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and those of the American Academy of Pediatrics for how schools can safely reopen. The CDC, which initially said masks were not necessary for people who have been vaccinated, continues to adjust its advice and no doubt will continue to do so as conditions evolve. But the agency and pediatricians agree completely about the most important thing: the need to get students back into the classroom with their teachers and friends.

“Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority,” wrote the CDC. “The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health,” said Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health, in a statement.

The shared urgency about reopening schools must be kept front and center, even as new worries arise about increased covid-19 infection rates caused by the highly contagious delta variant. Among the country’s major failings in how it responded to the coronavirus was the lack of urgency, creative thinking and effective action in keeping schools open. It should never happen again that getting bars and gyms up and running is a higher priority than reopening schools.

More than a year of isolation and the loss of an unprecedented amount of classroom time have resulted in what experts say are social, academic and emotional setbacks that could affect the physical and mental health of students for years. Most impacted have been low-income students, as the pandemic widened inequities in education.

The CDC and AAP provide evidence-based strategies that school districts can use to keep students, teachers and schools staff safe. Among the recommendations: masking, physical distancing, improved ventilation, testing and, for those old enough, vaccination. The CDC did not mandate a uniform approach but deferred many decisions to local officials. Virus caseloads and vaccination rates vary from place to place — the unfortunate result of this country’s patchwork approach to the pandemic and the politicization of a public health emergency. What is needed in a jurisdiction with a high infection rate may not be needed in one with a low rate. Unfortunately, those most in need of stringent requirements live in jurisdictions that are proving to be most resistant. At least eight states so far have banned schools from putting in place mask requirements and, judging by the rising rhetoric, more seem sure to follow.

Instead of barring schools from keeping children safe, state and local officials should be helping schools give parents confidence their children won’t be put at risk. New York City and California took steps in that direction when they moved to require vaccines or weekly testing for public employees, including teachers. There are huge costs to shuttering schools. It is long past time to stop making children pay that price.

Read more:

Leana S. Wen: The CDC’s latest school guidelines are not perfect, but they’re better than expected

Michael Gerson: Republicans who support anti-vaccine bills are engaging in performative libertarianism

Marty Makary: The U.S. is far too fixated on vaccinating Americans. It must focus on the world.

Jacqueline Pogue Lyons: D.C. should ensure schools are safe before reopening