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Pediatricians say children should return to the classroom as long as safety protocols such as mask-wearing are in place. Mayur Kakade/Getty Images
  • Pediatricians say the time children spent away from the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic has created learning gaps as well as mental health issues.
  • That’s why they are reaffirming their position that children should return to school as long as there are proper safety protocols in place.
  • They note that adherence to safety practices varies widely among school districts across the country.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has reaffirmed its stance on prioritizing in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with “diligent adherence to safety measures such as vaccination, universal masking, and physical distancing.”

That guidance has many parents, many of whom have struggled with the demands of virtual schooling amid a lack of other social supports, breathing a small sigh of relief even as worries about what a COVID-19 case might mean for their children remain.

“My children have every support in the world, and it was still tough for them,” said Brian Castrucci, DrPH, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation and a father of fifth- and sixth-graders. “I thought my family and I handled virtual schooling well. But the challenges of virtual schooling for my family were more obvious when my children returned to in-person learning. School stopped being a chore and started being something they enjoyed again.”

Pediatricians expressed similar sentiments from a clinical perspective.

“Schools are crucial to the well-being of children and provide not only academic instruction but also support services, nutrition, physical activity, medical care, and emotional and social development for children, in addition to other services,” said Dr. Jennifer E. Schuster, a pediatrician treating infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Kansas City and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. “As a community, we should be prioritizing the ability for children to attend in-person school safely during the pandemic.”

Dr. Lisa Doggett, MPH, a senior medical director for HGS AxisPoint Health and a fellow with the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Vaccine Science Fellowship, as well as a mother of two daughters in middle and high school, agrees.

“We have seen the devastating consequences, including worsening mental health, significant learning gaps, and learning disparities, that resulted from the year or more when many schools switched to online learning,” Doggett told Healthline.

She said that switch was necessary, but we know more than then.

“Fortunately, now we know that, in the vast majority of cases, schools can stay open safely with minimal risk to students and staff,” Doggett said. “As the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and AAP point out, well-fitting masks, improved ventilation, social distancing, and most importantly, COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone age 5 and older are crucial to reduce the spread of the virus in schools and ultimately to end the pandemic.”

Those AAP recommendations, though, are only as good as individual schools’ adherence to what constitutes a safe reopening.

And that’s far from uniform from school district to school district across the country.

For instance, as of September 2021, among the 74 largest school districts in the country, 96 percent had a mask mandate in place, and 84 percent offered a remote schooling option. However, only 69 percent had a testing requirement for staff and students, and even fewer – 36 percent – had staff vaccine mandates in place, according to data collected by EdWeek.

Those large districts cover more than 8 million students, about 15 percent of U.S. public school enrollment.

The lack of comprehensive testing continues to be a challenge even as the federal government has ramped up efforts to expand in-school testing.

“Schools need resources not only for the actual COVID-19 tests but for staff to implement COVID-19 testing programs,” Schuster told Healthline. “Screening testing (i.e., testing asymptomatic students/staff) requires personnel to regularly test people, perform the tests, provide results and perform contact investigations when there are positive cases. Although these programs can be highly effective, they take lots of personnel.

“Not every school has a nurse, and school nurses have been tasked with many COVID-19 responsibilities,” she added.

There’s also the issue of in-school learning being treated as a political football rather than a community public health priority.

“Keeping our children in school has become a debate rather than a collective effort and appropriate strategy to achieve our shared goal of safe, in-person learning,” Castrucci told Healthline.

“We are screaming about mask-wearing instead of discussing a testing strategy. But this isn’t binary. It isn’t virtual school or in-person school with no mitigation strategies. There are many shades of gray that have been sacrificed on the altar of political polarization that is hurting our children and keeping us from our goal.”