Dr. Marty Makary: CDC's new COVID school guidelines are scientifically flawed and our kids will pay the price

I strongly encourage school board members, parents and local government leaders to find a path to re-opening quickly

Kids are at the lowest risk of COVID-19 death and least likely to transmit the virus. But they are being deprived of their livelihood by being shut out of school.

Adults are at higher risk of death and transmission. But the CDC has no problems allowing them to sit shoulder-to-shoulder for hours on airplanes or go to restaurants, casinos and bowling alleys.

So why does the CDC continue to create more barriers to sending kids back to school?

The CDC’s new COVID-19 guidelines for reopening schools claim to be scientific. But they further harm children by creating overly burdensome recommendations.

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Defying science, the guidelines create testing and distancing requirements so extreme it makes consistent in-person learning unachievable for the vast majority of schools in America today.

For instance, if a community has a high rate of COVID transmission, the CDC says students and teachers will need to be tested weekly. That’s not easy to set up for many school systems.

The CDC has smart people, including director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who have been speaking their minds, which is why they now have a hypocrisy problem.

Three weeks ago, top CDC scientists published a detailed review of the latest science on COVID and schools from the U.S. and around the world in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association and concluded, "there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."

Yet, in a sudden about-face, the same CDC is now making re-opening dependent on the number of cases in the community.

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Most concerning, the guidelines are dismissive of data showing the harm of ongoing school closures.

Let’s start with suicide. Harvard’s Dr. Joseph Allen and Boston University’s Dr. Helen Jenkins estimate that kids are 10-times more likely to die of suicide than COVID-19. That’s why officials in Clark County, Nevada, reopened schools after 18 kids committed suicide during school closures due to the pandemic.

"When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the COVID numbers we need to look at anymore," said Jesus Jara, the Clark County superintendent, to the New York Times.

Substance abuse numbers are also up for adolescents during the pandemic, researchers are finding. The lockdowns are also leading to increased domestic violence against young people, including sexual abuse, experts say.

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COVID-19 has also exacerbated our country’s hunger crisis, but the millions of kids who depend on getting meals at school are unable to do so when their school is shuttered. That’s why there is as much consensus in the medical community to reopen in-person learning as there is to stop smoking.

These problems may not be evident to wealthy autocrats working remotely in mansions. But in places like inner-city Baltimore, closed schools can have brutal health consequences.

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If the new CDC guidelines substituted the word influenza for COVID, we might see schools close every year in perpetuity. In reality, no healthy child (without a chronic condition) has died of COVID according to a recent study I co-authored with my colleagues at West Health and FAIR Health, which included a review of half of the nation’s health insurance data. If we are really listening to the science, it tells us that more kids die when schools are closed than when they are open.

The CDC director herself said that "there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely." But the Biden White House, which campaigned on listening to scientists, quickly distanced itself from her comments saying she was speaking, "in her personal capacity." But her personal capacity is that of the head of infectious diseases at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital!

Many believe what is really happening is that the Biden administration is outwardly calling for schools to be open but behind the scenes accommodating teachers' unions by subtly stalling on implementing a re-opening.

One of those stall tactics may have been asking the notoriously slow CDC to write new school guidelines after they did just did in September.

The new CDC requirement for testing at some schools also delays in-person learning. Furthermore, many experts have been calling for a 3-foot recommendation for physical distancing instead of the 6-feet number which was designed for adults. This subtlety could mean the difference of doubling the number of kids in classrooms.

Many private schools have been holding in-person learning throughout the pandemic, generating tremendous data on the safety of schools being open. One study of North Carolina school districts, found that among 90,000 students, there was not a single case of transmission from student to teacher. This is settled science and a purely political issue at this point.

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The new CDC report on schools is also consistent with the agency’s counter-science track record of being late and wrong. After getting the COVID testing system wrong, months into the global pandemic, the CDC was still telling people not to wear masks.

In March, the CDC still only recommended COVID testing for people with recent travel to China. Most recently, the agency issued its complicated vaccine allocation guidance an embarrassing two weeks after the vaccine was distributed, even though it had 9 months to do it.

That guidance was also flawed, resulting in young work-from-home hospital staff getting the vaccine before vulnerable Americans, even when the work from home staff already had natural immunity from a prior COVID infection.

The new CDC school reopening guidance does get a few things right. It calls for masking and handwashing, but that was already in the September CDC guidelines for schools. Let me be clear, all kids should wear masks and ventilation should be optimized when classes are held indoors, a strategy I have called for since last spring. But schools should also consider the hidden consequences of being closed and the majority of doctors calling for schools to be in-person.

I strongly encourage school board members, parents and local government leaders to find a path to re-opening quickly with universal masking, 3-foot distancing and good ventilation. Those precautions have kept pilots, flight attendants and airline passengers safe a million times over despite a smaller space, a higher density of people congregating together, no testing requirements, and a higher-risk population than kids.

I suggest that local schools skip the most restrictive parts of the CDC’s guidelines if they cannot be implemented in favor of in-person learning now. The CDC’s guidance is only advisory and schools and local governments are not obligated to comply. The re-issuance of school guidelines by the CDC appears to be a stall tactic that introduces more stall tactics.

That’s why it’s being praised by some teachers unions. By April, there may be very little COVID infection in the U.S. based on the current increase in natural and vaccinated immunity. By the time the infrastructure for the CDC’s guidelines can be implemented, COVID may be at very low levels and the bureaucracy and special interests will have successfully blocked kids from receiving in-person learning for the entire pandemic.

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Adults are reopening their indoor dining and filling airplanes. There’s no scientific reason kids, who are lowest risk, should be dead last when it comes to school.

It’s nothing short of age discrimination because kids don’t have a voice.

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