President Biden initially pledged to reopen the nation’s schools by his 100th day in office, but the White House has in the past week sought to temper those expectations, setting a reopening benchmark of “the majority of schools” — or 51 percent.
That push will hinge on new guidance, expected to be released on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about how schools can reopen safely.
A consensus of pediatric infectious disease experts said in a new survey that many of the common requirements — including vaccines for teachers or students, and low rates of infection in the community — were not necessary to safely teach children in person. Instead, the 175 experts — mostly pediatricians focused on public health — largely said it was now safe enough for schools to be open to elementary students for full-time and in-person instruction.
Some said that was true even in communities where Covid-19 infections is widespread, as long as basic safety measures are taken. Most important, they said, are universal masking, physical distancing, adequate ventilation and avoidance of large group activities.
The experts were surveyed by The New York Times in the past week. Depending on various metrics, 48 to 72 percent said the extent of virus spread in a community was not an important indicator of whether schools should be open, even though many districts rely on those metrics. Most respondents said that schools should close only when there are Covid-19 cases in the school itself.
“There is no situation in which schools can’t be open unless they have evidence of in-school transmission,” said Dr. David Rosen, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis.
The risks of being out of school are far greater, many of the experts said. “The mental health crisis caused by school closing will be a worse pandemic than Covid,” said Dr. Uzma Hasan, thee division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey.
For the most part, these responses match current federal guidance, which does not mention vaccines, and reflect significant scientific evidence that schools are not a major source of spread for children or adults.
But the consensus in the survey is at odds with the position of certain policymakers, school administrators, parent groups and teachers’ unions. Some in these groups have indicated that they do not want to return to school buildings even in the fall, when it is likely that teachers will be able to be vaccinated, though not most students.
Some districts have faced strong resistance to reopening, particularly in large cities, where teachers have threatened to strike if they are called back to school buildings.
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