How schools can reduce coronavirus risks to near zero, experts say

New guidance from a group of experts at Harvard, Tufts, Boston and Brown universities says the key to opening schools safely amid the coronavirus is high-quality infection control — not community-spread metrics.
“The nation’s educators are living through extraordinary challenges. At the same time, recommendations to get students back for in-person learning are necessary for the good of students, and reasonable, because safety can be achieved,” said Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.
“We need to stop thinking about schools in a binary way — open or closed — and instead assess the risk for in-school transmission and the quality of infection control … in each school … and each classroom and hallway,” Allen said.
The group’s report, “Schools and the Path to Zero: Strategies for Pandemic Resilience in the Face of High Community Spread,” follows previous guidance that recommended using community-spread metrics as a key factor in assessing mitigation measures and school openings or closures. Now, community-spread metrics serve as important pieces of information, but the recommendation is that schools focus on rates of in-school transmission and the quality of infection control.
The most important elements of infection control, according to the report, are:

Universal masking, including while speaking
Hand and bathroom hygiene
Four to six air changes per hour of “clean” air through any combination of ventilation and filtration or outdoor classrooms
Three feet of social distancing for young learners at all levels of community spread
Six feet of social distancing for high schools when levels of community spread rise above 100 new daily cases per 100,000 people
Robust quarantine policies and contact tracing practices and, where feasible, screening testing
Staying home when sick

Infection control when there is widespread community spread of the coronavirus requires a simultaneous focus on universal precautions, environmental controls and changes to programs and practices, the report said.
Strict implementation of infection-control practices requires healthy partnerships among school leaders, educators and communities, as well as short- and long-term public investment in the public education system’s infrastructure and workforce, according to the report.
To facilitate in-building safety for in-person learning, the report said, schools need to address six central topics when settling on their strategy: trust, transportation, infection control, occupational health and safety standards, testing and vaccines.
All schools should have an infection-control team responsible for training all students, staff and teachers in the use of universal precautions and also ensuring that all infection-control measures are in place, according to the report.

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