Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, says it is “a bit of a reach” to say that schools should stay closed this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic and that there are a “whole bunch of things” that can be done to allow them to reopen.
Fauci spoke to CNN in a phone interview on Wednesday, a day after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said he intends to see school buildings in his state open for the 2020-21 school year barring a huge spike in infections. In mid-March, DeWine was the first governor to shut down schools statewide in response to the spreading coronavirus outbreak.
“The goal is to have kids back in the classroom,” DeWine said.
School districts nationwide are making plans for the fall, creating contingencies for in-person learning, virtual learning at home, and a hybrid of the two, with the last option the most likely for the majority of districts. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued detailed guidelines on how schools can safely reopen.
In his interview, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said:
“Children can get infected, so, yes, so you’ve got to be careful. You got to be careful for them and you got to be careful that they may not spread it. Now, to make an extrapolation that you shouldn’t open schools, I think, is a bit of a reach.”
He also said that opening schools “depends on the level of viral activity” in a particular area and that it is time to be “creative” in reconfiguring classrooms to ensure that students are not seated too close together.
“In some situations, there will be no problem for children to go back to school,” he said. “In others, you may need to do some modifications. You know, modifications could be breaking up the class so you don’t have a crowded classroom, maybe half in the morning, half in the afternoon, having children doing alternate schedules. There’s a whole bunch of things that one can do.”
In mid-May, Fauci warned that reopening America too quickly could lead to “needless suffering and death.”
Many education leaders say they are concerned about the costs of making modifications that will allow for safe reopening. State budgets, facing plummeting revenue because of the shutdown of businesses during the pandemic this spring, have less money to provide to school districts, some of which had not recovered from the financial hit of the Great Recession.
Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said on a Brookings Institution panel about the CDC guidance:
“It is already apparent that implementing them will be very costly and significantly change the education landscape. The question becomes, how much are we willing to stray from them for the sake of expediency and/or reducing the costs involved?”