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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a paper published on Tuesday, concluded that schools operating in-person learning with appropriate anti-viral precautions have seen only “scant transmission” of the virus, according to a number of studies conducted in districts across the country.
The news could pave the way for schools to re-open to in-person learning if certain guidelines are followed, though the CDC says that riskier activities associated with in-school education, like organized, indoor athletic events, may have to wait a bit longer.
“The CDC team reviewed data from studies in the United States and abroad and found the experience in schools different from nursing homes and high-density work sites where rapid spread has occurred,” The Washington Post reported Tuesday. “The review, which echoes the conclusions of other researchers, comes as many school districts continue to wrestle with whether and how to reopen schools and as President Biden makes a return to in-person learning one of his top pandemic-related priorities.”
The CDC appears to have found that schools fare better when they observe some of the same anti-viral precautions practiced in other public spaces, like big-box retail stores. The agency suggests students wear masks while indoors and observe strict social distancing.
“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” the CDC researchers said in their article for the Journal of the American Medical Association. “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
“The conclusion here is with proper prevention efforts…we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,” the study’s lead author added, according to the Washington Post. “We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year but the data has really accumulated.”
“She said that even in places with high infection rates, there is no evidence that schools will transmit the virus at rates that are any higher than those seen in the general community. She said they can operate safely as long as precautions are employed,” The Washington Post added.
The CDC’s data does seem to echo data collected in other areas of the world, where students returned to in-person schooling in the fall, or, in some cases, were never locked out. The study also comes on the heels of a set of British statistics, released on Monday, that suggest teachers are no more likely to get COVID-19 than other essential workers.
Not all aspects of the educational experience are safe, however. The CDC researchers noted that the risk of transmitting coronavirus is high at indoor athletic events and at other extracurricular activities where it is not possible to wear masks or social distance. So while students may return to a classroom setting, in-person learning likely will not look the same as it did before the pandemic.
The CDC’s report comes at a time when some large school districts — notably, Chicago’s — are negotiating with teachers unions over how and when to return students to classrooms. Chicago’s school district plans to return to in-person instruction for most students by February 1st, but the Chicago Teachers Union has resisted, citing unsafe working conditions. On Monday, the union voted to refuse to teach in person.