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Anthony Fauci to Teachers: You'll Be 'Part of the Experiment' in Reopening Schools

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, told educators in a virtual town hall that when it comes to reopening school buildings for in-person instruction, there are still many unanswered questions about how the coronavirus is spread by children.

"As you try to get back to school, we're going to be learning about that," he said. "In many respects, unfortunately, though this may sound a little scary and harsh—I don't mean it to be that way—is that you're going to actually be part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know. Remember, early on when we shut down the country as it were, the schools were shut down, so we don't know the full impact, we don't have the total database of knowing what there is to expect."

His comment sparked some uproar on Twitter from teachers, who said they didn't sign up to be part of such an experiment. As the first day of school approaches, teachers are worried about their health and that of their families—and say there are still too many unanswered questions for them to feel safe.

Earlier on Tuesday, AFT President Randi Weingarten had announced that the union would pursue various tactics, including lawsuits and strikes, to keep schools from reopening before educators feel it is safe. The AFT is in the middle of its biennial convention, held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump has pushed for schools to resume in-person instruction this fall, although he said this week that schools in areas heavily affected by the coronavirus may have to delay their openings. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stressed that children need to be back in school, since schools provide social-emotional support, socialization opportunities, wellness checks, and meals to vulnerable students

"The default position is you should try, to the best of your ability, to get children back in school, but you've got to put the however in there," Fauci said. "The however means you have to be concerned always about the safety, the health, and the welfare of the children, the teachers, and the personnel."

Fauci answered questions from AFT members for about 45 minutes, prefacing his remarks by saying that the research on COVID-19, its transmission, and its effects is constantly evolving. "We need to be humble enough and transparent enough and flexible enough to be able to change, when appropriate, the kinds of recommendations we make," he said.

While there is some research that says children older than 10 can spread the coronavirus as easily as adults can, it's less clear how much children younger than 10 spread the virus, he said. It's also unclear how frequently children get infected and what proportion of those children will be asymptomatic, he said, adding that the National Institutes of Health has begun a study that attempts to answer some of these questions.

Here are some of his responses to queries from AFT members on reopening schools.

What conditions should be in place for children and adults to safely return to in-person learning?

Fauci noted that this answer will vary from place to place—there is no one-size-fits-all answer or solution.

"If you look at our country and the extraordinary level of viral activity, ... what might be good in one county, one region, one city, one state might not be the same for all," he said.

It may not be feasible to test everybody for COVID-19 before they enter the school building, Fauci said. To reopen safely, schools will need personal protective equipment for students and staff, a way to identify infected individuals, and the ability to conduct contact tracing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended against in-school screenings for symptoms of COVID-19, saying that they won't catch asymptomatic cases and might flag other illnesses, like the common cold. It recommends that schools "strongly encourage" parents and guardians to monitor their children "for signs of infectious illness every day."

What protective personal equipment should teachers be wearing?

"There is not an absolute pristine, perfect answer to that question," Fauci said. But at minimum, teachers should wear a mask and something to protect their eyes, which are also susceptible areas for virus transmission. That could be goggles or face shields, he said.

Teachers should "possibly" also wear gloves, he said, adding that washing hands frequently (or using hand sanitizer if there's not easy access to a sink) is just as effective.

"Based on what we know now, should the teachers be dressing up in full PPE like someone who is an intensive care unit? I'd have to say the answer to that is no," he said, adding that the risk is relative for teachers since they don't know if they will be interacting with someone who has the coronavirus.

It would be reasonable, but not essential, for teachers to wear something they can dispose or wash immediately after work, so they don't have to bring their clothes home, he said. Some teachers have been purchasing scrubs for this purpose.

How can bus drivers protect themselves when students are boarding the bus?

School bus drivers should definitely be wearing a mask, Fauci said. And since children will be closer than six feet to the bus driver when they board the school bus, they should already have a mask on, he said.

"Since you're the first contact as they come on the bus, we would hope that there's a policy in your district that gives out masks and has the child have a mask on before they get onto the bus," he said. "I would encourage you to get the authorities in your district to do that because you don't want to be having a child come in and be exposing others if the child is infected without any symptoms."

Education Week tackled the question of transportation, along with other logistical questions on reopening schools, in the special reporting series How We Go Back to School.

For Fauci's full remarks, watch the video below:

Image: Screenshot of the AFT townhall —Madeline Will/Education Week