For a third year, schools are opening in the presence of covid-19. With experience, vaccines and mitigation — plus deeper knowledge of the coronavirus itself — it should be possible to give students a lot of in-person instruction this school year, but it is vital that the lessons of the pandemic be fully absorbed.
Vaccines are the key to normalcy. They are widely available, free and highly effective at protecting against severe illness and hospitalization. Yet the uptake of vaccines among K-12 students is ridiculously low. Among children 5 to 11 years old, only 10.9 percent were fully up to date with the primary series and first booster as of Aug. 3; among those 12 to 17 years old, only 27.6 percent. This means millions are heading to class without adequate vaccine protection. While children have been less prone to serious illness and death throughout the pandemic, it makes little sense to forsake the most potent tool that exists against the virus. And as epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina points out, it is also important to stay up to date with other inoculations, including flu.
Another ticket to normalcy is better air. We know the virus can hover in the air for an hour or more, especially in a crowded, stuffy room, and that better ventilation and filtration can reduce the chances of infection. Schools should strive to reach four to six air exchanges per hour. This is not rocket science: It can be done using any combination of outdoor air ventilation, recirculating air filtered with at least a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) of 13 or air cleaners with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters. According to Joseph Allen, associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, most schools are built at a design standard of three air exchanges per hour, but many slip over time, and studies show the average is about 1.5 per hour. Teachers, students and parents ought to be aware of this vital step that can make schools healthier: Throw open the windows whenever possible.
It no longer makes sense to pursue draconian quarantines of a whole class if one student tests positive. But it does make sense to follow this rule: If sick, stay home. This applies to teachers, too. Likewise, strict mandates for masks no longer seem necessary, but prudence still matters. In areas where there is high community transmission, good-quality masks ought to be everyone’s choice, to protect themselves and others. Home rapid test kits are now ubiquitous and ought to be within reach and utilized in every household. On Thursday, in an overall relaxation of guidelines for covid, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped the recommendation that people be screened or tested in most settings such as schools and workplaces. The CDC also put less emphasis on social distancing. Hand hygiene is still important.
Last year, the omicron wave caused an enormous amount of disruption. With luck, we will have in-person classrooms from start to finish this year. But another variant could always be around the corner. Schools, parents and students must not forget the lessons of the past 2½ years, and be prepared to cope, mitigate and pivot if circumstances change.
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