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CDC lays out school guidelines, calling COVID-19 risks for kids low

A classroom at the Pickering Middle School in Lynn.
A classroom at the Pickering Middle School in Lynn.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

US health officials issued guidelines for reopening schools as districts across the country weigh whether to bring kids back amid the coronavirus pandemic, a move that follows calls by President Donald Trump for classrooms to resume in-person instruction this fall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out an argument on Thursday for bringing students back to campuses, citing the developmental harm that could be caused to children from missed education.

The CDC said in a statement titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall” that while parents, teachers and school officials are concerned about the risk of transmitting the coronavirus in classrooms, the “best available evidence indicates if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms.” The CDC also said death rates from the virus among children are much lower than among adults.

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Lockdowns designed to arrest the spread of Covid-19 pushed millions of children out of school this spring, forcing working parents to remain at home to care for their kids and oversee online instruction. The ongoing outbreak has led to a national debate over the safety of allowing students to return and the long-term consequences of keeping schools closed.

Returning children to school also is generally seen as critical to reinvigorating the economy. But a recent surge of infections across Sun Belt states and in the West has led to increased calls for keeping schools closed. Parents, teachers and others have argued from both sides, with some urging schools to return to regular schedules despite the risks, and others advocating they remain shut or move to a mix of online and in-person instruction.

Trump has pushed for a return to normal, and has threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t bring back students. “Every district should be actively making preparations to reopen,” he said at a White House briefing on Thursday.

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However, Trump said cities and states that are current hot spots for transmission of the virus may need to delay, a decision that he said ultimately rests with governors. Some state leaders, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, had chafed at Trump’s earlier push to reopen schools. New York will begin announcing decisions about its schools next month. In California, now home to the most US Covid cases, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered that public schools for the majority of its population stay remote until the virus is under control.

In the new materials released Thursday evening, the CDC cited the variety of potential harms not going to school poses to children, including socially, to their economic well-being and for their academic achievements. It also said evidence suggests Covid-19 has relatively few risks for school-aged children, though it said international studies have looked in areas with low community transmission.

The public-health agency said that “no studies are conclusive.”

The CDC said schools must prepare by implementing social distancing, wearing of masks and keeping groups of students together in an effort to limit virus transmission. It also said it doesn’t recommend schools screen children for symptoms, saying that such measures won’t detect each individual who has Covid-19 and may mistakenly identify other illnesses like colds and the flu.

Instead, the agency said it recommends parents be “strongly encouraged” to monitor kids for signs of illness, laying out a set of instructions they can use to do so.

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The CDC’s guidance highlights the challenges facing schools that have been instructed to reopen classrooms even as the U.S. lacks substantive public-health tools to make doing so safely possible.

While previous CDC guidelines to schools had been criticized by the president as “very tough and expensive,” it’s not clear that the new guidance replaces them. The latest information from the agency links to previous May guidance that recommends social distancing and staggered arrival and dismissal times.