Public health experts at Harvard, BU weigh-in on CDC school reopening guidelines

“If they’re not back already, your kids are not going back to school full-time this year.”

David L. Ryan / Boston Globe

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its roadmap Friday for how schools can safely reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, and two local public health experts are raising concerns the guidance will keep “millions” of students out of school “unnecessarily.”

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Joseph Allen, an associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Helen Jenkins, an associate professor of biostatistics at Boston University School of Public Health, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in the hours after the CDC released its guidance. 

The new report from the nation’s top public health agency should be a “wake-up call” to parents, the professors wrote. 

“If they’re not back already, your kids are not going back to school full-time this year,” they wrote. 

In releasing its guidance, the CDC stressed that in-person learning has not been linked as a substantial driver of COVID-19 spread in the United States and that the safest way to open schools is to make sure the community is experiencing low levels of the disease. Otherwise, the agency said in-person instruction can resume safely with the use of masks, social distancing, and other measures like testing and contact tracing. Vaccinating teachers, while considered important, was not a prerequisite from the federal agency for reopening schools. 


The agency included a color-coded chart for schools to use in assessing community spread.  

In their critique of the road map released by the CDC, Allen and Jenkins singled out two issues they said will serve as barriers to getting children back into classrooms — using community-spread metrics to determine whether a school can reopen and requiring routine screening testing. 

“We’re all for stringent controls in schools,” they wrote. “There are many that are both effective for adults and kids and don’t keep kids out of school, as some of these new ones from CDC will. At some point, we have to recognize the consequences of keeping millions out of school for a year and treat this like the national emergency it is.”

Using community-spread metrics prompts major problems, according to the professors.

“We’re part of a group of faculty and researchers at Harvard, Boston University and Brown University that released a report in July using such metrics as indicators for when to open schools,” they wrote. “We changed our position on this in light of overwhelming scientific evidence that transmission within schools can be kept low regardless of community spread, so long as good mitigation measures are in place.


“It’s also clear that community spread is not an indicator of within-school transmission,” they wrote. “The CDC itself released a study showing this. It also recently wrote that there is ‘little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to community transmission.’ So why tie reopening schools to community spread?”

The community-spread metrics aren’t the only part of the guidance the professors found problematic.

Allen and Jenkins also argued the CDC should have specified the use of high-efficiency masks or double-masking for adults in schools, that the agency “overemphasizes” cleaning, and that it “gives lip service to ventilation.”

“Let’s open classroom windows, get teachers better masks or double mask for now, prioritize them for vaccination, close bars/restaurants before schools, keep a remote learning option, and stop messing around with the well-being of tens of millions of kids,” Allen wrote on Twitter. 

Read the full op-ed from Allen and Jenkins in the Washington Post. 

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. 


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