Share on Pinterest
Experts say children need to return to the classroom as soon as safely possible. Rich Legg/Getty Images
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says it’s important for children to return to the classroom as soon as safely possible.
  • The organization has released guidelines on how schools can remain safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Among them are physical distancing, mask wearing, disinfecting classrooms, and COVID-19 testing.
  • The AAP adds that schools need to receive state and federal funding to achieve these goals.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The wisdom of reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic has been hotly debated.

Educators generally agree that in-person teaching is far better for students than distance learning.

However, teachers remain concerned about their own health and safety, and there are lingering concerns about students transmitting the novel coronavirus to each other and to family members at home.

Now, the nation’s leading association representing pediatricians has weighed in favor of reopening — under specific conditions.

Schools that closely follow COVID-19 protocols designed to protect public health can reopen safely, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says.

The group, which represents pediatricians across the United States, released detailed safety protocols to allow schools to be open for in-person learning.

“New information tells us that opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission of the virus. However, it is critical for schools to closely follow guidance provided by public health officials,” Dr. Lee Beers, FAAP, the president of the AAP, said in a press release.

“Children absolutely need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well-being, and so safety in schools and in the community must be a priority… We need governments at the state and federal levels to prioritize funding the needed safety accommodations, such as improving ventilation systems and providing personal protective equipment for teachers and staff,” she said.

The AAP contends that reopening primary and elementary schools is safe because younger children seem less likely to spread the virus in classroom and child care settings, and those who do get sick generally have mild to moderate symptoms.

The AAP safety protocols cover such topics as:

  • Physical distancing, such as maintaining a minimum of 6 feet of space between students, teachers, and each other. The AAP says one way to maintain physical distancing is with “co-horting,” or keeping limited-size groups of students and educators together during the entire school day.
  • The use of face coverings for students and staff. The AAP recommends cloth face coverings for all adults and students over age 2.
  • COVID-19 symptom screening, testing, and contact tracing.
  • Cleaning, disinfecting, and ventilation of school buildings.
  • Mental health support for students and staff.

Nearly all children can safely wear face coverings, the AAP contends, and since schools aren’t mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to screen all students for COVID-19, it’s imperative that parents keep sick children home from school.

Since COVID-19 transmission primarily occurs via exhaled respiratory droplets, “mitigation efforts should focus on prevention of droplet transmission,” the AAP said.

“School policies should… look to create safe working environments for educators and school staff,” according to the AAP. “This focus on overall health and well-being includes addressing the behavioral/mental health needs of students and staff.”

The AAP offers some wiggle room to schools. For instance, the group noted, “Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.”

How do all these rules stack up in teachers’ minds?

“I teach in a secondary school, and while co-horting is not something that is always feasible, we adhere to most of these recommendations already,” Scott Berstein, a high school teacher in Cranston, Rhode Island, told Healthline.

Berstein added, however, that “classrooms are not cleaned and sanitized between classes, as time generally doesn’t permit.”

The AAP also states that policies need to be tailored to students’ developmental stages and also take into account “the diversity of youth… especially for those who are medically fragile or complex, have developmental challenges, or have disabilities.”

“School is essential not just for kids’ intellectual growth but for their social and emotional development too,” said Dr. Harvey Karp, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, the chief executive officer and founder of Happiest Baby, and an AAP fellow.

“But with COVID cases still ticking up in many places, returning to school is not something that we should rush into,” Karp told Healthline. “Sending kids back too early, or to a school that hasn’t taken enough measures to keep its students and staff safe, could be a disaster for the whole community.”

“Before putting their child on a school bus, parents will want to make sure that the schools have PPE for teachers and kids, have made class changes (such as holding class outdoors, improved ventilation, reducing class size, or conducting class in shifts), have a plan for what happens when a student or teacher gets ill, and maybe even have started the vaccination process for teachers,” Karp said.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected all schools equally, the AAP noted.

“Disparities in school funding, quality of school facilities, educational staffing, and resources for enriching curricula among schools have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” according to the organization.

The AAP called for adequate governmental funding to cover the cost of implementing adequate safety protocols, which the CDC estimates could cost anywhere from $55 to $442 per student.

Schools will only be able to remain open if community-wide efforts to prevent COVID-19, such as having adequate testing available, are implemented, the AAP stressed.

“Schools provide critical supports to students and their families directly and indirectly through school-community partnerships,” Jeanie Alter, PhD, executive director of the American School Health Association, told Healthline. “As such, it is important to safely return to schools as soon as it is feasible to do so.”

“The recent update of the AAP recommendations for safely reopening schools during COVID-19 more adequately addresses the need for layered protections,” Alter added. “In addition, it [addresses] the many factors that families must take into account in deciding what is right for their family and circumstances.”

The AAP said that the enhanced safety protocols should remain in effect despite increased rates of vaccination against COVID-19.

“[It] is important to not let down our guard,” Beers said.

Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association (NEA), said her organization welcomes the AAP guidance.

“We want to emphasize from AAP’s new guidance that strict enforcement of mask requirements and physical distancing in schools remain critical and that significant resources are necessary to put the needed health and safety protections in place,” Pringle told Healthline. “In addition, both community-wide approaches to COVID-19 mitigation and widespread COVID-19 testing are crucial components of returning to safe in-person instruction. NEA must also echo AAP’s recognition of, and call to remedy, the existing racial injustices that have been exacerbated by the pandemic for our Black, brown, and Native students. We must ensure that in-person instruction is not only safe for our students and educators working in public schools, but that it is equitable.”