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Citing educational risks, scientific panel urges that schools reopen

NEW YORK — Wading into the contentious debate over reopening schools, an influential committee of scientists and educators Wednesday recommended that, wherever possible, younger children and those with special needs should attend school in person.

Their report — issued by the prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which advises the nation on issues related to science — is less prescriptive for middle and high schools but offered a framework for school districts to decide whether and how to open, with help from public health experts, families, and teachers.

The committee emphasized common-sense precautions, such as hand-washing, physical distancing, and minimizing group activities, including lunch and recess.

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But the experts went further than guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups, also calling for surgical masks to be worn by all teachers and staff members during school hours and for cloth face coverings to be worn by all students.

Regular symptom checks should be conducted, the committee said, and not just temperature checks. In the long term, schools will need upgrades to ventilation and air-filtration systems, and federal and state governments must fund these efforts, the report said.

Online learning is ineffective for most elementary school children and special-needs children, the panel of scientists and educators concluded.

To the extent possible, “it should be a priority for districts to reopen for in-person learning, especially for younger ages,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins and a member of the committee.

Mary Kathryn Malone, a mother of three children, has been eager for schools to reopen in Mount Vernon, Ohio, where she lives. Her 9-year-old daughter is pining for her friends, and her 3-year-old has only part-time day care — and not while Malone works.

But she was most worried about her 7-year-old son, who needs help for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.

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“At one point, we were three full weeks behind on schoolwork,” said Malone, who teaches French at Kenyon College. “I was working through my own job, and when I looked at this mountain accumulating, it was so stressful.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics last month also recommended that schools reopen, a position widely cited by the Trump administration, which has been pushing hard for a return to something resembling normal life despite soaring infection rates in many states.

Most studies suggest the virus poses minimal health risks to children younger than 18. And the report said that evidence for how easily children become infected or spread the virus to others, including teachers and parents, is “insufficient” to draw firm conclusions.

Outside experts said they appreciated the report’s distinction between younger and older children.

“I think that’s really smart,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “The risk is different for a third-grader than for a 10th-grader, and I say that as the dad of a third-grader and a 10th-grader.”

But Jha and other experts noted that the committee did not address the level of community transmission at which opening schools might become unsafe simply because too much virus may be circulating.

“They punted the most critical question,” he said.

Committee members said the decision not to recommend a cutoff was deliberate.

“There is no single prevalence or threshold that would be appropriate for all communities,” Rivers said.

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Rivers said schools would need to decide how and when to open, close, and reopen schools by taking into account many factors, including disease levels in the community — and should plan for what to do when students or teachers become infected.

“Even with extensive mitigation measures, it’s not possible to reduce the risk to zero, and that has to be part of the discussions,” Rivers said.

Reopening schools should be a priority because schools fulfill many roles beyond providing an education, the authors said.

“It’s child care, it’s nutrition, it’s health services, it’s social and emotional support services,” said Dr. Enriqueta Bond, the committee’s chair. “These functions are really undervalued, I think, in the conversation that’s been taking place.”

Some 54 percent of public school districts need to update or replace facilities in their school buildings, and 41 percent should replace heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in at least half their schools, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office.

“One of the shocks to me is that over 50 percent of the school buildings are awful,” Bond said.

The CDC has provided limited guidance on reopening schools and largely puts the onus on district leaders to make judgments they may be unequipped to make.

The new report offers more detailed guidance for how to reopen, including a list of the kinds of experts to consult.