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How can schools be safe this fall without mask mandates?

This fall will represent the fourth consecutive academic year that the pandemic will affect schools in some way. The first disruption occurred in the spring of 2020 and essentially closed all in-person learning. In subsequent academic years, most K-12 schools utilized a combination of mask mandates and remote learning. Despite these measures, many had prolonged school closings including many large districts.

This fall, according to data from Burbio, only 1.8% of schools will have mask mandates whereas 73% were being enforced last October. In parallel, the number of COVID cases in the US still exceeds 100 thousand cases per day (and by some estimates over 500,000). This disparity coupled with relatively low vaccination rates for children, the contagious BA.5 variant, and a potentially severe flu season could create a perfect storm for record infections affecting children and their families. With masking being only optional, most children will not wear any protection. Additionally, smaller classrooms will eliminate all distancing requirements.

Are schools doomed to high COVID cases and inevitable closures?

Even without external mandates, schools can strategize themselves when to use their available measures for COVID safety. Several years of pandemic experience have created a wealth of understanding about COVID. Many groups like the CDC and others have used these data to assemble recommendations about combating and preventing infections in the COVID era. Academic leaders should understand these recommendations to optimize safety for their constituents.

All school administrators should be aware of the COVID rate in their community at all times. This data is easily available for all American zip codes from the CDC websites. Knowing this information will allow everyone to assess their institutional risk for COVID on an ongoing basis. These data are continually updated to reflect accurate infection and hospitalization rates for each locale. An understanding of the community risk will alert school officials to consider safety measures such as surveillance testing or selective mask mandates for their schools. Providing these precautions may prevent many cases of COVID from occurring in the schools and possibly avoid a school closing or the death of someone in their community.

The results of local wastewater surveillance for COVID may also be valuable. The CDC tabulates these data by studying local water systems and assessing their level of Covid viral particles. These levels can be an early marker for COVID in different areas. If this level is high for COVID, then surveillance testing or mask mandates also may be needed.

Encouraging vaccinations and updated boosters are also essential for providing a safe return to school. While mandating vaccinations for staff and children has not been widely practiced, an understanding of their importance in decreasing deaths, hospitalizations, and cases of long COVID will prove invaluable in assessing the risk of closure to each institution. Diminishing all these severe complications from COVID will be extremely important in the next phase of the pandemic as normalcy is attempted. Vaccinations and boosters also decrease the severity of some COVID cases and their spread to other individuals.

Identifying individuals with COVID as soon as possible is vital to prevent its spread. The current BA.5 variant is the most contagious variant yet and future variants are likely to be even more contagious. In the school setting, contact tracing is even more crucial as students have so many potential contacts each day. Faculty who routinely congregate together during the school day have even more risk as many may be older or have other health issues.

Most importantly, identifying those who have been exposed is only part of the solution. Exposed individuals also should be tested or quarantined to keep others safe. Within the last year, many schools performed “test to stay” regimens where exposed individuals only stayed in school if they tested negative. Previously, many of these students would have been sent home but many uninfected individuals would have unnecessarily missed school. This system worked excellently where it was properly utilized and likely prevented countless COVID infections and school closures.

Ensuring someone is no longer contagious after an infection is just as important as early identification of COVID before the individual becomes symptomatic. Previously, the CDC had recommended a strict five-day quarantine before returning to school or work without any additional testing. The rebound infection of President Biden cast attention on this policy. Now, many recommend a return to work or school before 7-10 days be accompanied by a negative test. While consensus rules are still evolving, best practices can revolve currently around these guidelines.

The pandemic has become endemic. Hundreds of thousands of infections are still occurring in the US every day as of early August 2022. While this number may decrease over the next few weeks, future increases are likely due to new variants and close exposures in areas like schools. To minimize future damage from COVID while allowing everyone to resume normal activities like in-person learning, focused attention to COVID prevention is necessary. Understanding community risk, quickly identifying exposed individuals, and creating a culture of safe return will all be essential.

Across the US in-person learning will soon be in session. Working hard to understand and maintain the proper precautions will keep it that way!



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