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Opinion Back to school classrooms: big benefits, big uncertainty, no simple answers

A student wears a mask while doing schoolwork in October 2020. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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Heading back to school next week presents vexing decisions about the omicron pandemic surge — choices that must take into account the high cost of disruption if in-person classes are suspended, as well as gnawing uncertainties about the virulence and severity of the new variant. There are no simple answers.

Keeping children in K-12 classrooms should be a high priority. Prolonged closures play havoc with learning and students suffer in isolation. Closures seriously disrupt work routines for parents, who must juggle child care. In the pandemic recession, millions of women with children were forced to quit jobs or drop out of the labor force when schools closed.

Up until now, the pandemic has not taken a toll of death and illness among children as it has among adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association say that severe illness is “uncommon among children.” The fall semester of in-person learning appears to have been without major outbreaks. A wild card is omicron’s high transmissibility. The number of new covid-19 cases among children week-to-week, according to the academy, reached 198,551 for the seven days that ended Dec. 23, compared to half that amount in early November. Pediatric hospital admissions are up in some places, such as New York. Notably, about half the admissions in New York were for whose who are under 5 years old, thus ineligible for vaccination. Among the other half, from ages 5 to 17, most were either not fully vaccinated or unvaccinated.

For K-12 schools, choices will be difficult. Community transmission has been a yardstick in the past. But during omicron it is soaring in some places, while not leading to severe disease among adults as often as in the past. Administrators face other factors, too, such as whether they have sufficient teachers and support staff.

There is no single solution for all districts, but for those going back to in-person learning, we now know a lot more about tools for mitigation. Mask-wearing is essential for everyone, and higher-quality masks make a difference. Hand hygiene and distancing also matter. Ventilation and air filtration are extremely important: Schools should strive for more than four and ideally up to six air exchanges per hour, combined with filters with at least a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) of 13 or air cleaners with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters. Vaccination is an extremely powerful tool to fight infection, but among children ages 5 to 11, the rate has seriously lagged — this age bracket is 8.7 percent of the population, but accounts for only 2.8 percent of those taking at least one dose. Ages 12 to 17 years old have done much better. To the extent practical, diagnostic testing and screening of students can help reduce the chances of spread. “Test-to-stay” strategies — in which those who have had contact with someone who is infected can remain in school so long as they continue to test negative and wear a mask — can help reduce absenteeism and disruption.

Schools are a microbial mixing bowl. Millions of Americans are unvaccinated and thus highly vulnerable to omicron. The value of returning to classrooms is unquestionable, but schools must be prepared to pivot to remote learning if necessary, and meanwhile take every precaution to make the learning safe as well as productive.