In Their Own Words: Why Health Experts Say Elementary Schools Should Open

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Scientists and doctors who study infectious disease in children largely agreed, in a recent New York Times survey about school openings, that elementary school students should be able to attend in-person school now. With safety measures like masking and opening windows, the benefits outweigh the risks, the majority of the 175 respondents said.

Below are a representative range of their comments on key topics, including the risks to children of being out of school; the risks to teachers of being in school; whether vaccines are necessary before opening schools; how to achieve distance in crowded classrooms; what kind of ventilation is needed; and whether their own children’s school districts got it right.

In addition to their daily work on Covid-19, most of the experts had school-aged children themselves, half of whom were attending in-person school.

They also discussed whether the new variants could change even the best-laid school opening plans. “There will be a lot of unknowns with novel variants,” said Pia MacDonald, an infectious disease epidemiologist at RTI International, a research group. “We need to plan to expect them and to develop strategies to manage school with these new threats.”

Most of the respondents work in academic research, and about a quarter work as health care providers. We asked them what their expertise taught them that they felt others needed to understand. Over all, they said that data suggests that with precautions, particularly masks, the risk of in-school transmission is low for both children and adults.

About 85 percent of the experts who lived in places where schools were open full time said their district had made the right call. Just one-third of those in places where schools were still closed said that had been the right choice.

The group expressed great concern that other aspects of child health and well-being had been neglected during the pandemic, with the potential for dire long-term consequences.

The experts felt strongly that, while vaccines were important, they shouldn’t be required of any population for schools to open as long as other precautions were followed to keep both teachers and students safe. (This, along with much of what the panel said, aligns with new federal government recommendations for opening schools. Like the C.D.C., the panel thought more precautions were necessary before older students could return, because they are likelier to spread the virus.) Many recommended prioritizing teachers for vaccines, along with frontline workers.

Many of the experts agreed that ventilation in school buildings — along with masks and distancing — was important to minimize the spread of the virus. But they specified that good airflow did not require major renovations or expensive air filters; it could be achieved with open windows, box fans and outdoor classes.

Many school districts have been splitting classes in half and bringing each half back part-time, to minimize exposure to the virus. The experts said such strategies could be helpful in situations where it was impossible to maintain distance, and for contact tracing. But many urged other solutions instead.

Even though most respondents said it was not crucial that classes be divided in half, most preferred a standard of six feet of distance between children in classrooms — which can be impossible to achieve with full classes. This is an example of how opening schools requires creativity and weighing various risks: Many said the six-foot standard could be relaxed in situations where ventilation was good, and especially among younger children, who are less likely to spread Covid-19.

The emergence of Covid-19 variants around the world has raised fears that the current evidence about school safety may no longer apply. Over all, the experts in our survey said the variants could interfere with school opening plans. But few thought they were sure to cause substantial problems, in part because of the current rollout of effective vaccines.