If such quarantines prevent infections, few would argue with the agency. But some data has suggested there is very little evidence of infection of people who are exposed at school and proceed to quarantine at home. If this finding holds more broadly, it’s possible we might limit quarantines to people who’ve been in close contact with someone with Covid, or shorten the length of quarantines, in conjunction with testing and monitoring. Cohorts enable schools to limit interactions among students and staff, which makes it easier to conduct contact tracing when Covid-19 cases do emerge. Pods, or even just smaller class sizes, can also help by limiting how many people need to quarantine.
The schools that are currently open in the United States can provide some insight into what is and isn’t working. Some require maintaining three feet of distance between students, some require six feet, and some require none. Schools take different approaches to ventilation, testing for the coronavirus and quarantining. It’s possible to learn whether all of these efforts truly do mitigate the spread of Covid-19, but there has not been a nationwide system for schools to share their findings with one another in an organized fashion. A comprehensive, federal-level effort to collect and compare this information should inform the approach for a full reopening.
The new guidelines for the spring are a start, but keeping them in place for the fall will likely mean we cannot open all schools. This would be a tragedy for children. Schools cannot implement the agency’s recommendations — like upgrading ventilation systems, adding mobile classrooms or shrinking class sizes — without adequate funding. President Biden’s stimulus package includes $130 billion to pay for school upgrades, staff needs and safety measures.
The pandemic has exposed longstanding problems in school facilities, like the absence of soap that’s necessary for proper hand washing. This is shameful, and we must invest resources to fix it, pandemic or not. But the Covid-specific issues will continue to stand in the way, even if we address these baseline problems.
Science-based guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention represent welcome progress when it comes to telling schools how to open. But they may not result in putting many small bodies into small chairs for a long time. The administration should take more steps to ensure that all children can attend school in person this fall.
Emily Oster (@ProfEmilyOster), a professor of economics at Brown University, is the organizer of the Covid-19 School Response Dashboard. She is the author of “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool.”