The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has weighed in on one of the pandemic’s most heated public-health policy debates. On Monday, CDC researchers published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association determining that the schools with in-person classes considered in the review showed very little COVID-19 transmission when students and staff wore masks and practiced proper social distancing.
“Back in August and September, we did not have a lot of data on whether or not we would see the same sort of rapid spread in schools that we had seen in other high-density work sites or residential sites,” Dr. Margaret A. Honein, one of the authors of the study, told the New York Times. “But there is accumulating data now that with high face-mask compliance, and distancing and cohorting of students to minimize the total number of contacts, we can minimize the amount of transmission in schools.” For infection rates to be kept low in communities at-large, the authors also recommended that city and state leaders close indoor dining, bars, and poorly ventilated gyms.
Another CDC study published on Tuesday analyzing 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin with high rates of mask-wearing found that just seven in 191 COVID-19 cases recorded could be traced back to at-school transmission. And a third CDC report published on Tuesday considered high-school wrestling tournaments in Florida where almost a third of those participating and officiating tested positive for COVID after the events.
Together, the CDC’s three publications provide a picture of how schools may be able to safely reopen in the coming semester: Face masks, social-distancing, and outdoor cross-country are in, wrestling and other indoor competitions are out. “The conclusion here is with proper prevention efforts … we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,” Honein added. “We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year but the data has really accumulated.”
The CDC publications enter a raging debate between municipal and state leaders, teachers’ unions, and parents over how and when to reopen in-person learning in the midst of a pandemic in which six-figure caseloads were reported every day this month. And as evidence accrues for the possibility of a controlled return to in-person learning, so do the effects that isolation has taken on students out of school: The school district encompassing Las Vegas announced this week that kids would begin the process of returning to classrooms after a surge in suicides during the pandemic. To support school openings and his administration’s plan to open the majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days, President Biden has asked Congress for $130 billion in his stimulus-package proposal.