The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has come out strongly in favor of schools having students return to the classroom in the fall, despite the ongoing risks associated with COVID-19.
“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” the group said in an update to its guidance for school re-entry.
The guidance asserts that “the importance of in-person learning is well-documented,” and that evidence already has emerged of “negative impacts” on children due to school closures in the spring.
One research paper estimates that the 55 million U.S. children who were out of school due to the coronavirus pandemic may have lost roughly a third of their progress in reading and half of their progress in math.
But children have not simply taken a hit academically, the AAP warned.
Being away from school for a long period of time can lead to social isolation, the group said. Prolonged closures can make it difficult for schools to identify students who are struggling academically, or who may be dealing with domestic abuse, substance abuse, and serious mental health concerns like depression and suicidal thoughts.
School closures also have a direct impact on children’s nutrition and their physical activity levels.
“The AAP guidance also says that while universal masking is "ideal," it is not always realistic, particularly among younger children.”
The guidance comes as COVID-19 cases are surging in many states, meaning that risks surround a return to classrooms. The AAP calls for school policies to be “flexible” and “nimble” in responding to new information on the pandemic as it arises, and said education officials should adopt policies that can be easily revised if case counts in a given school or community spike.
But the group also points to data suggesting that COVID-19 has not been as serious in children — and that they may be less likely to spread the virus to each other.
“Although many questions remain, the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the guidance said. “In addition, children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.”
(One of the more serious post-infection health problems linked to COVID-19 — pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome ― can be life-threatening to the children it afflicts, but so far such cases in the U.S. have been rare.)
The AAP guidance offered ways schools can balance the desire to resume in-person learning with the need to keep students and staff safe.
The guidance said school districts should do what they can to promote social distancing, while acknowledging the practical challenges that presents, particularly in over-crowded schools already strapped for space. The AAP pointed to some evidence that 3-feet of space between students may be effective in combatting viral spread, particularly if coupled with mask-wearing.
The AAP guidance also said that while universal masking is “ideal,” it is not always realistic, particularly among younger children. While noting that some people have medical exceptions, the group said that school staff and older students — those in middle or high school — generally can wear cloth masks ”safely and consistently,” and should be encouraged to.
Several states have begun to roll out their plans for the upcoming academic year, including New Jersey and Connecticut, that aim for the re-opening of in-person classrooms.
But others, like New York City — once the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. — have yet to firm up plans, hinting at the strong likelihood of a hybrid model combining some remote learning and some in-person classes.
Ultimately, whenever school districts determine that in-person learning can resume, teachers should be ready to deal with significant setbacks in children’s academic, social and emotional development in the wake of last spring’s abrupt closures, the AAP said.
“Schools will need to be prepared to adjust curricula and instructional practices accordingly,” the AAP said, “without the expectation that all lost academic progress can be caught up.”
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