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CDC supports in-person instruction, according to new research

HOUSTON – School districts operating in-person instruction have seen relatively low transmissions of COVID-19, according to new research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study thanks to policies that mandate mask-wearing, social distancing, and other COVID-19 prevention measures.

“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” researchers concluded.

The report recommends schools require mitigation measures, in order for in-person to work, including wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, increasing ventilation indoors and using a “hybrid” approach that combines in-person and online learning when necessary to avoid crowding in classrooms. The guidelines also said testing should be expanded so infected teachers or students can be identified quickly and isolated.

“Decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the U.S.,” according to the report.

The report does caution some in-school activities, particularly athletic events, finding:

“Nonetheless, some school-related activities have increased the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission among students and staff. Numerous media reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among US high school athletic teams suggest that contact during both practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, increase risk.”

The debate over whether to fully re-open schools has been fiery throughout the pandemic, with most area school districts offering a hybrid in-person/virtual option for parents, depending on their preference.

Overall, area doctors and medical experts agree in-person learning is the best approach; however, in order to return fully to in-person learning, school districts and communities as a whole have to follow tight specific protocols.

“We really need to get back to I’m-person learning,” said Firas Zabaneh, the director of System Infection Prevention and Control at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Zabaneh’s work includes training area school districts on what to do in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“If we are actually able to implement the proper precautions because now we know a whole lot more about the virus than we did a year ago, then we know how to prevent the transmission properly,” Zabaneh continued.

Few would disagree with Zabaneh’s point about the importance of returning to in-person learning. Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious disease specialist with Memorial Hermann said science has improved to include a clearer picture of the coronavirus’s actual threat in schools.

“Transmissions within schools was not the nightmare that we were worried about in August,” said Yancey, who stressed the science is dependent on communities doing their part to reduce spread. “Have universal masking — everybody has to wear a mask. We cannot crowd the classrooms. Students have to be apart. We have to continue to observe that social distancing.”

Yancey said adding increased ventilation, as well as reducing crowd size in schools is a must.

Dr. Stan Spinner, the Chief Medical Officer at Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care, said virtual learning hasn’t been good for students’ mental health nor their grades. While Spinner acknowledges parents may feel uneasy about a full return to the classroom, he said it’s important to follow the science.

“Science is there — it is the source of truth. It tells us what’s happening. We continue to learn from that and we continue to make recommendations to help us do what’s right,” Spinner said.

Yet, some worry a one size fits all approach may not work for all school districts.

Jackie Anderson, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said schools within HISD aren’t ready for a full-time return and are not safe.

“The socially distancing is not going on in the classrooms,” Anderson said, adding schools are not following proper protocol to ensure mitigation.

Moreover, Zeph Capo, the president of Texas AFT, said the CDC’s report must be considered in its totality. There are a lot of communities must do, he warned, in order for full time in-person to work.

Capo said statewide Texas hasn’t been strict in its approach – and that’s proven detrimental. His other concern is the push to vaccinate teachers.

“Getting the vaccine to those educators that want it is the primary driver of at least our educators feeling safe and comfortable enough to truly return to in-person school,” he said.

Doctors agreed to offer teachers and staff the vaccine is important. Texas’ vaccine rollout strayed away from the CDC’s recommendation by not including teachers among the category of frontline workers.

Capo said Texas has not controlled spread and isn’t ready for a full-time return to in-person learning.

“We have to control the community spread before it is safe enough to fully return in-person,” Capo stressed.