National panel argues for school reopenings, citing academic consequences

'Districts should weigh the relative health risks of reopening against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction in Fall 2020,' authors wrote.

Schools should prioritize full-time in-person instruction this fall for children in K-5 and those with special needs, according to a report from a national panel of experts.

The guidance issued from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine says distance learning cannot fully replicate the benefits of in-person instruction, and school closures would result in long-term academic consequences for children.

"Districts should weigh the relative health risks of reopening against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction in Fall 2020," authors wrote, citing that youth are at low risk of serious, long-term consequences or death as a result of contracting COVID-19.

Distance learning could further exacerbate educational inequities, experts said. The unequal distribution of wealth and power across school districts could reinforce educational disparities as not all have easy access to remote learning.

“... The communities most devastated by COVID-19 are often also the same communities with inadequately resourced schools,” authors wrote.

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Schools offer a host of benefits beyond education, such as affordable childcare, meals, mental health services and school-based health services.

While schools cannot completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19, the experts advised a “suite of measures” to maintain health and allow for the reopening of schools. All students and staff should wear fabric face coverings or surgical masks, they wrote, and while younger children may have difficulty complying, efforts should encourage compliance.

Measures also include physical distancing, supplies for effective hand hygiene, limiting large gatherings in cafeterias, assemblies and indoor sports events, and surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected nightly.

Creating smaller groups of students is “another promising strategy,” but will require additional staffing. Teachers and staff in high-risk age groups may be hesitant to return to school because of the associated health risks.

The panel said federal and state governments should provide significant funding to help schools implement the suite of measures.

On another note, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health held a virtual briefing on Thursday on steps schools can take toward reopening.

“Right now, at least, I think we can have very high confidence that children experience less severe illness ... than adults do [if they] get COVID,” said Anita Cicero, JD, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We can be moderately confident that children, especially young children, seem less susceptible to infection than adults.”

“But, we still need to make a very concerted research effort to collect additional evidence related to the transmissibility from children to adults because that evidence is still quite limited,” Cicero said.

Likewise, the committee from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine identified four areas of research that are “urgently needed” to fill gaps in evidence such as the role of children in COVID-19 transmission, the role of reopening schools in community virus spread, airborne transmission and effectiveness of different mitigation strategies in schools.

Further, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told “The Story” Wednesday that “it is not acceptable for schools not to reopen" for in-person classes this fall.

"Education is an essential function," DeVos told host Martha MacCallum. "Schools are essential, teachers are essential, kids have got to get back in school and this administration is going to continue to fight to expand choices and opportunities so that families who do want to choose a different option have the power to do that.”

"We clearly have to follow guidelines around hygiene, wearing masks when appropriate and ensuring that teachers have distance and protection, but this can be done," DeVos went on.

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Fox News’ Yael Halon contributed to this report.