Guidelines to ensure a safe schools reopening

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Purpose and Key Principles

The purpose of this guidance is to continue to support communities, local leadership in education and public health, and pediatricians collaborating with schools in creating policies for safe schools during the COVID-19 pandemic that foster the overall health of children, adolescents, educators, staff, and communities and are based on available evidence. As the next school year begins, there needs to be a continued focus on keeping students safe, since not all students will have the opportunity or be eligible to be vaccinated before the start of the next school year. Since the beginning of this pandemic, new information has emerged to guide safe in-person learning. Remote learning highlighted inequities in education, was detrimental to the educational attainment of students of all ages, and exacerbated the mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Opening schools generally does not significantly increase community transmission, particularly when guidance outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is followed. There are still possibilities for transmission of SARS-CoV-2, especially for individuals and families who have chosen not to be vaccinated or are not eligible to be vaccinated. In addition, SARS-CoV-2 variants have emerged that may increase the risk of transmission and result in worsening illness. However, the AAP believes that, at this point in the pandemic, given what we know about low rates of in-school transmission when proper prevention measures are used, together with the availability of effective vaccines for those age 12 years and up, that the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in almost all circumstances. Along with our colleagues in the field of education, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly advocates for additional federal assistance to all schools throughout the United States, irrespective of whether the current local context allows for in-person instruction.

Schools and school-supported programs are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction; social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/occupational/speech therapy, mental health services, health services, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits. Beyond supporting the educational development of children and adolescents, schools can play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity. As such, it is critical to reflect on the differential impact the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated school closures have had on different racial and ethnic groups and populations facing inequities. Disparities in school funding, quality of school facilities, educational staffing, and resources for enriching curricula among schools have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Families rely on schools to provide a safe, stimulating, and enriching space for children to learn; appropriate supervision of children; opportunities for socialization; and access to school-based mental, physical, and nutritional health services.

Everything possible must be done to keep students in schools in-person. Many families did not have adequate support to the aforementioned educational services, and disparities, especially in education, did worsen, especially for children who are English language learners, children with disabilities, children living in poverty, and children who are Black, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native.

The AAP strongly recommends that school districts promote racial/ethnic and social justice by promoting the well-being of all children in any school COVID-19 plan, with a specific focus on ensuring equitable access to educational supports for children living in under-resourced communities.

It is critical to use science and data to guide decisions about the pandemic and school COVID-19 plans. All school COVID-19 policies should consider the following key principles and remember that COVID-19 policies are intended to mitigate, not eliminate, risk. Because school transmission reflects (but does not drive) community transmission, it is vitally important that communities take all necessary measures to limit the community spread of SARS-CoV-2 to ensure schools can remain open and safe for all students.
The implementation of several coordinated interventions can greatly reduce risk:

  • All eligible individuals should receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
    • It may become necessary for schools to collect COVID-19 vaccine information of staff and students and for schools to require COVID-19 vaccination for in-person learning.
    • Adequate and timely COVID-19 vaccination resources for the whole school community must be available and accessible.
  • All students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use).
    • The AAP recommends universal masking in school at this time for the following reasons:
      • a significant portion of the student population is not eligible for vaccination
      • protection of unvaccinated students from COVID-19 and to reduce transmission
        ▪ lack of a system to monitor vaccine status among students, teachers and staff
      • potential difficulty in monitoring or enforcing mask policies for those who are not vaccinated; in the absence of schools being able to conduct this monitoring, universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement, and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status
      • possibility of low vaccination uptake within the surrounding school community
      • continued concerns for variants that are more easily spread among children, adolescents, and adults
  • An added benefit of universal masking is protection of students and staff against other respiratory illnesses that would take time away from school.
  • Adequate and timely COVID-19 testing resources must be available and accessible.
  • It is critically important to develop strategies that can be revised and adapted depending on the level of viral transmission and test positivity rate throughout the community and schools, recognizing the differences between school districts, including urban, suburban, and rural districts.
  • School policies should be adjusted to align with new information about the pandemic; administrators should refine approaches when specific policies are not working.
  • Schools must continue to take a multi-pronged, layered approach to protect students, teachers, and staff (ie, vaccination, universal mask use, ventilation, testing, quarantining, and cleaning and disinfecting). Combining these layers of protection will make in-person learning safe and possible. Schools should monitor the implementation and effectiveness of these policies.
  • Schools should monitor the attendance of all students daily inclusive of in-person and virtual settings. Schools should use multi-tiered strategies to proactively support attendance for all students, as well as differentiated strategies to identify and support those at higher risk for absenteeism.
  • School districts must be in close communication and coordinate with state and/or local public health authorities, school nurses, local pediatric practitioners, and other medical experts.
  • School COVID-19 policies should be practical, feasible, and appropriate for child and adolescent’s developmental stage and address teacher and staff safety.
    • Special considerations and accommodations to account for the diversity of youth should be made, especially for populations facing inequities, including those who are medically fragile or complex, have developmental challenges, or have disabilities. Children and adolescents who need customized considerations should not be automatically excluded from school unless required in order to adhere to local public health mandates or because their unique medical needs would put them at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 during current conditions in their community.
  • School policies should be guided by supporting the overall health and well-being of all children, adolescents, their families, and their communities and should also look to create safe working environments for educators and school staff. This focus on overall health and well-being includes addressing the behavioral/mental health needs of students and staff.
  • These policies should be consistently communicated in languages other than English, when needed, based on the languages spoken in the community, to avoid marginalization of parents/guardians of limited English proficiency or who do not speak English.
  • Ongoing federal, state, and local funding should be provided for all schools so they can continue to implement all the COVID-19 mitigation and safety measures required to protect students and staff. Funding to support virtual learning and provide needed resources should continue to be available for communities, schools, and children facing limitations implementing these learning modalities in their home (eg, socioeconomic disadvantages) or in the event of school re-closure because of a resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 in the community or a school outbreak.

With the above principles in mind, the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with a goal of keeping students safe and physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in 2020.

Policy makers and school administrators must also consider the scientific evidence regarding COVID-19 in children and adolescents, including the role they may play in the transmission of the infection. Although many questions remain, the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection. We continue to learn more about the role children play in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. At present, it appears that children younger than 10 years are less likely to become infected and less likely to spread the infection to others, although further studies are needed. Some data suggest children older than 10 years may spread SARS-CoV-2 as efficiently as adults. Additional in-depth studies are needed to truly understand the infectivity and transmissibility of this virus in anyone younger than 18 years, including children and adolescents with disabilities and medical complexities. Current SARS-CoV-2 variants may change both transmissibility and infection in children and adolescents even in those who have been vaccinated.

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