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Fauci: The "default position" for students should be in-person instruction

Given the increasing data made available -- both in terms of coronavirus transmission and students' academic and social troubles -- "the default position we should have is to bring the children back to school or keep them in school," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview during this year’s Milken Institute Future of Health Summit. However, Fauci does not advocate one-size-fits-all solutions across the country and says precautions must be in place first.

While leaders may act out of caution when today's data is different than yesterday's, Fauci noted that the test positivity of children in school is relatively low in comparison to the larger community, making it safe for them to go back -- as long as precautions are taken, such as wearing masks, washing hands, maintaining physical distance and ensuring good ventilation.

That's the view taken by Hamburg, N.Y., Superintendent Michael Cornell. "If they focus on some of the macro data around infections, that might give a family reason for concern," he said in an interview. "But if one focuses on comments made by public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Gale Burstein, the consensus of public health officials and our own experience in schools here in Western New York and certainly our experience in Hamburg, will tell you that schools are safe.

Monday afternoon, the Dane County, Wis., public health department cited updated research in its decision that reopening schools now can be safe, a reversal of its Aug. 21 order barring in-person learning in grades three through 12. Health officials provided five recommendations, including phased openings, the use of masks and other safeguards.

Fauci has pointed out that local, state and federal governments will need to help schools with the resources to achieve such precautionary health standards so in-person instruction can resume more quickly. He also emphasized the need to provide additional support for teachers who are at higher risk of infection because of age or underlying conditions.

Fauci would like to see teachers get the vaccine sooner rather than later, but the timeline for who will get the vaccinations hasn't been confirmed yet. At a Columbia University event Thursday, Fauci suggested children might start getting vaccines in mid-January. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said this week the general public -- those without underlying health conditions and who aren't essential health care workers -- may have access to the vaccine in pharmacies and supermarkets as early as late February.

In the meantime, vaccine trials are slated to begin on children and pregnant women in January, Fauci noted in his talk at Columbia.

Fauci, who has agreed to be the chief medical officer and an adviser for President-elect Joe Biden, cautioned people during the Milken event interview to avoid any unnecessary contact with friends and loved ones outside the same household during the coming holidays. He reiterated that having everyone take precautions and avoid risky behavior will help tamp down the infections , but -- based on excessive socializing during the Thanksgiving holidays -- he predicts "we're going to be in for some significant pain and suffering in the next couple of months." He believes that if 75% to 85% of people in the US will get vaccinated, "we could crush this outbreak" before the end of 2021.

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer for SmartBrief.

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