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4 questions about reopening schools during COVID-19, answered

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the United States, so does the debate over whether schools should reinstate in-person learning in the fall. Where do health experts, the Trump administration, school officials and teachers across the country stand on welcoming students back to classrooms amid the coronavirus pandemic? How could their decisions affect not only children and teens, but also the teachers and staff that support them at school? And what steps should parents consider to keep their kids safe?

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency medicine physician and public health professor at George Washington University, joined PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham on Tuesday to answer viewer questions on what this school year could look like.

Watch the conversation in the live player above.

What are the benefits of returning to school?

While lawmakers debate when and how to reopen schools, it’s clear that most are united in the belief that classroom learning is critical to childhood development.

Wen confirmed that there’s tangible benefits to in-person schooling.

“We know the benefits of school and they extend far beyond the educational component,” she said.

She pointed out that, for many children, school provides a place of security and safety that their homes often cannot provide. School lunches, for instance, ease the burden of food insecurity for some families.

READ MORE: Why some schools stayed open during the 1918 flu pandemic

School also can provide safety for some children who face abuse at home. Wen said 20 to 25 percent of child abuse cases are reported by school staff.

But even with all these important factors, Wen still cautioned that reopening schools safely should be a top priority.

“The question is how do we get kids back to school safely?” she said, stressing the importance of getting COVID-19 cases under control within a community first.

To Wen and many others, the conversation around returning to school cannot happen without stemming any rise in case numbers.

What is required to reopen schools?

As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to rise in a majority of states, many parents wonder what it will take to reopen schools in just a few weeks. Wen emphasized that this isn’t just a school effort, it’s a community effort.

Wen said, even with proper precautions, it’ll be impossible for the school to fully prevent an outbreak if the area has a high number of cases.

“You can’t keep COVID out of the school if the community is a hotbed of infection,” she said. “And that’s the single most important thing we can do now in order to get our schools to safely reopen in the fall.”

Wen said it will take a lot of resources, both from the school and the government, and that “we should have learned our lesson that taking shortcuts doesn’t work.”

She pointed to Trump administration efforts to push for reopening, but said that those efforts must be backed up with resources to help communities get their cases under control.

She also emphasized that school safety precautions don’t just help the kids, they also help the teachers, staff and family members remain healthy.

What can be done for students with disabilities?

Students with disabilities are often the ones who benefit most from in-person schooling, but also are likely more susceptible to more serious health complications if they were to contract COVID-19, Wen said.

“This is part of the challenge that so many administrators are facing,” she said.

Wen again emphasized that schools should follow CDC guidelines such as implementing social distancing measures, creating a dedicated “isolation room,” and using personal protective equipment during the school day in order to alleviate these concerns.

“I do really worry that in the rush to reopen, that we forget about those who are the most vulnerable,” she said.

What will schools look like when they reopen?

Amid a global pandemic, many efforts to return to “normal” will be different. Even if schools reopen, adding some measure of normalcy to life, all the new safety measures necessary to keep students and teachers safe will be reminders of how much things have changed.

“All of these things are necessary, they are evidence-based, they are best practices, but they do take resources and they do take time,” Wen said of the measures required — like masks, isolation rooms and “pods” for students — to have schools reopen safely in the fall.

Wen emphasized, more than anything, that everyone who can “really should be wearing masks.” Especially for young children, since keeping a mask on them all day may prove to be an ineffective safety measure.

For schools that serve younger children, Wen said they will likely need to ensure that toys and environments are routinely cleaned, and possibly to separate groups of kids and staff into “pods” in order to effectively limit an outbreak if one occurs.

Wen said that all these changes are likely going to be expensive and resource intensive, which makes her worried about lawmaker willingness to make the financial investment to ensure a safe reopening.

“What I fear is that there isn’t the political will … to put in the work to devote these resources,” she said.