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Why kids should be in the classroom this fall — and how to keep them safe there

Millions of children and parents are desperate to know what the fall might look like in terms of school. Recently, a group of public health and pediatrics experts made the case that kids need to be in the classroom and not at home. William Brangham reports and talks to Sean O’Leary of the American Academy of Pediatrics about strategies for mitigating the risk of coronavirus spread in schools.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Millions of American children and their parents are desperate to know what the fall might look like for school.

    As William Brangham reports, there is an argument that kids need to be in the classroom.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics, the AAP, came up with a very clear statement this week, arguing that, given what we know about the virus and about kids being stuck at home — quote — "The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school."

    I'm joined now by one of the authors of that report. Dr. Sean O'Leary is a pediatrician, an infectious disease specialist, a professor, and vice chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases.

    Dr. O'Leary, thank you very much for being here.

    Your report offers all kinds of cautions about how to make school safer, how to keep teachers and kids safe. But, given what we know now, make the argument that you made in this report.

  • Sean O’Leary:

    Yes.

    So, you know, I know there's a lot of concern about the risks of kids going into school, both for students and teachers. I think we know a lot more now than we did in March, when we pretty much all shut schools down.

    So I think there are ways that we can make schools safe. It's really a strategy of risk mitigation, so putting together multiple different strategies, as opposed to risk elimination. We're not going to be able to eliminate — completely eliminate risk in schools, just the way we're not able to completely eliminate risk elsewhere.

    I think the other really crucial other side of the coin is that, you know, kids have really suffered from not being in school, you know, starting with educational outcomes. We have seen, really, a lot of evidence that those have really gone down, and then, of course, lots of concerns with behavioral health and abuse, all kinds of problems from kids just being at home.

    And then you look at what we're all trying to do now with reopening the economy. So much of reopening the economy has to do with children being in school. So, I think everything we can do right now to get this virus under control in the coming, you know, one to two months to make it much safer for kids to be in school, we really need to be doing that.

  • William Brangham:

    Some of your report also seems to be informed by what we are learning about how kids get sick with coronavirus and how they might then transmit the virus to others, to adults in the room, their teachers.

  • Sean O’Leary:

    So, you know, it's becoming clearer — I mean, we're still learning every day, but it's becoming clearer that kids are — appear to be less likely to get infected with COVID-19.

    When they do get infected, they — the disease tends to be much less severe than it does in adults, particularly older adults. And they also tend to be less likely to spread the disease to other people, we think probably because they are less symptomatic when they have it. So they're not coughing and sneezing as much when they have it.

    So there are a number of factors involved with SARS-CoV-2 that I think we now know that we didn't know then.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, I hear everything that you're saying about the importance emotionally, psychologically, educationally, nutritionally, even, your report cites, of getting kids back into schools.

    But I know so many parents who have heard the mantra of socially distance, stay away from others. And now the idea of sending their kids back into crowded classrooms is terrifying to them, frankly.

    How do we make schools safe, so that that can actually happen?

  • Sean O’Leary:

    I think there are a number of measures we can take, but a few of the things that we know works. Physical distancing works, ideally six feet, but even three feet is pretty good.

    When you can't maintain six feet, wearing face coverings, particularly for the older kids, who do appear more likely to spread the virus. Masks work. There's more and more evidence coming out every day about the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

    But we really have to consider the teachers and the staff as well. What we have seen in other places that have opened schools is that the spread tends to be adult to adult, as opposed to child to adult or adult child.

  • William Brangham:

    "Education Week," I know, did a poll of teachers and educators.

    It was two-thirds of them said that they were nervous about the idea of school reopening in the fall. They argued that some of them might be looking to retire early. Do you worry that that reopening plans might cause an exodus of teachers from schools?

  • Sean O’Leary:

    You know, I think we're all pretty nervous right now about just about everything we're doing. We're in a pretty precipitous place right now in this country, with cases increasing and a lot of states.

    And so, yes, I think there's reason to be nervous. I do think, if we can — you know, for communities where the virus is not raging, I do think it's realistic to open schools safely. So, yes, I'm nervous, and I understand why teachers would be nervous as well.

    And I think, all things considered, though, school is crucial on so many levels. And so that's — that was really the impetus behind this guidance. And I think teachers should be involved and are involved in the process of crafting these plans as schools reopen.

    I'm optimistic that, in a lot of places, we're going to be able to get there.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Sean O'Leary of the American Academy of Pediatrics, thank you very much for your time.

  • Sean O’Leary:

    Thank you.

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