Coronavirus

Data from around the country affirm schools are safe to reopen

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Over the last few weeks, a central pillar of pandemic-era decision making crumbled. The arbitrary measuring stick for defining whether daily life can be “safe.” Six feet. At first, we were told that as long as you could maintain this distance from someone outside your household, you didn’t need to wear a mask. Of course, eventually it didn’t matter if you were near another person at all.

Equally arbitrary, Governor Mills ordered businesses and houses of worship to allocate every visitor a 200 square foot bubble, about the size of a single-car garage, to account for proper, mandatory social distancing. The ensuing capacity limits and enforcement made dealing with the natural course of the pandemic much more difficult for Maine people, especially in rural areas with lesser viral risk.

The six-foot rule has been a key sticking point for reopening schools as well, but it has taken a beating.

A recent report in the nation’s top journal on infectious diseases looked to be the first domino, covered in the New York Times. Across 251 school districts, it found no difference of infection risk between those which used six feet of distance versus three feet. Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper about this study. Fauci agreed with Tapper’s conclusion that “three feet is good enough.”

New data from Florida schools, which have been open since August with 80% of students in classrooms full-time, show that viral spread in schools is lower than that of the community

CDC researchers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in January, finding that “[a] preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring…there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” They go on to note many other studies which have shown reduced viral spread in schools, even among adult staff:

“In the fall of 2020, 11 school districts in North Carolina with more than 90 000 students and staff were open for in-person education for 9 weeks. During this time, within-school transmissions were very rare…and there were no cases of student-to-staff transmission. Similarly, in a report released by CDC on January 26, 2021, with data from 17 K-12 schools in rural Wisconsin with high mask adherence…COVID-19 incidence was lower in schools than in the community.”

In most areas of policy for managing the pandemic response, the Mills administration has taken cues from the federal government. In one aspect, Maine CDC deviated from its federal counterpart in recommending 3 feet of distance for students in classrooms since the start of the pandemic.

The CDC updated its guidance earlier this month to recommend three feet of distance for all elementary school students, as well as middle and high schoolers, where cohorting is not possible, in counties where CDC has determined “high transmission” exists, or 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the past week or a 10% or higher 7-day test positivity rate (red).

It is important to note that all students are required by CDC to abide by rules relating to masks, handwashing, respiratory etiquette, cleaning, testing symptomatic students, teachers, and staff and close contacts, plus contact tracing with isolation and quarantine. These rules stand no matter the level of community spread.

What would it look like to achieve the CDC’s “safest” rating, where a county is deemed to have “low transmission?” For “Blue” status, CDC looks for counties to have fewer than 9 new cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate under 5%. They say both metrics must be met in the last 7 days.

Applied nationally, the US would need to average 4,600 new cases per day. Last time that was recorded was mid-March 2020, using fewer than 28,000 tests per day. Today, the US administers 1.4 million tests every day, or 50 times more than last year. Given our experience with this virus, plus the current level of testing, this is near-impossible to see in the near future.

Last summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that the developmental, social, and educational harms to children vastly outweigh the benefits of potential reduction infection by trying to keep them isolated at home. AAP recommended that reasonable mitigation measures, including expanding space requirements, cleaning, or ventilation would be enough to ensure a safe and effective learning environment.

The battlelines in the debate over school openings have shifted to focus on the necessity of certain rules or guidelines in order to provide a safe and quality education. This is a much more reasonable conversation since providing what developing children need is the central goal. For some students, remote learning works, but for many others, it has been an unwelcome and stressful change, made abruptly and with little concern for families’ needs.

We must do all that we can to protect the academic progression and personal growth of our children. This should be a clear lesson for our nation’s teachers and school administrators, especially today. Parents need their help to convince governors and school boards that keeping schools closed is doing much more harm than good.

Sign Maine Policy’s petition to reopen Maine schools and share your thoughts on this policy with the Mills administration today.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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