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Opinion The covid-19 danger does not lie in the classroom, but in the community

A nurse administers a covid-19 test in Philadelphia on Jan. 18. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

WHEN IT comes to schools and the pandemic, those scary first days in 2020 were filled with unknowns. Even at the start of the school year last autumn, there was great uncertainty about whether to open classrooms in person. But now, three scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called attention to a basic principle that should help parents, teachers, school staff and students decide about the future: The problem does not lie primarily in the classroom, but in the community.

That may sound mundane, but it is not. The scientists strongly suggest that, with proper mitigation, including masks, improved ventilation, good hygiene and distancing, in-person classrooms have not been transmission belts for the coronavirus. Last fall, more than 90,000 students and staff in 11 school districts in North Carolina took part in in-person schooling for nine weeks. While there were 773 infections acquired from the community, only 32 came from schools, and no cases were found of student-to-staff transmission. In 17 K-12 schools in rural Wisconsin, with high levels of mask-wearing, only seven of 191 covid cases over 13 weeks last autumn came from the classroom.

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Concluded the CDC scientists writing in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

The implication of the scientists’ statement is that more in-person schooling can and should get underway with proper mitigation in place. Of course, schools are not tidy and orderly — six feet apart in a middle school hallway, are you kidding? — but the costs of continued closure are significant. Hybrid and virtual classrooms are better than nothing but far from ideal. It will take money to prepare schools with enhanced ventilation and other forms of protection, but this seems worth every penny.

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Focusing on community spread is the key. No classroom should be forced open if the virus is raging outside. The CDC scientists point to vulnerabilities in school activities, noting reports of high school athletics that led to outbreaks. A particularly severe one was a high school wrestling tournament last month with 130 student athletes, coaches and referees in which, of those tested, 38 had confirmed infections, leading to a wave of secondary infections. If schools are going to open their doors again, it makes sense to avoid indoor athletic practices and games. Colleges and universities could do a world of good by finding a way not to penalize students on scholarships for interruptions because of the pandemic.

Those who are clamoring for open schools have a lot of evidence on their side. At the same time, they should be pushing just as hard to get control of the virus in communities. That means embracing the unpleasant sacrifices required to brake virtual transmission: keeping restaurants and bars closed, wearing masks everywhere in public, and accepting lockdowns as necessary until vaccines begin to turn the tide.

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