Rycc Smith welcomes Montello Elementary School students as they board his bus outside the Lewiston, Maine school Thursday afternoon, Jan. 21, 2021, after the first day back in nearly a month. Credit: Russ Dillingham / Sun Journal via AP

Officials from the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday said evidence from the fall showed that schools can reopen for in-person learning but only if communities take the proper precautions, which include limitations on aspects outside of the classroom such as indoor dining, gyms and athletic events.

In an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, officials from the CDC said data showed that rapid spread within schools is rare, and classrooms should welcome students back. The recommendation came with a host of caveats.

Measures required for students to return to the classroom should include universal face mask use, increasing physical distance by dedensifying classrooms and common areas, increasing room air ventilation, and expanding testing to rapidly identify and isolate asymptomatic infected individuals.

Hybrid learning should also continue to limit the total number of contacts and prevent crowding.

The restrictions for students to return to the classroom extended beyond school property. In order for schools to safely reopen, the CDC said communities must mitigate the spread of COVID, which means prohibiting events that have been shown to cause rapid spread like indoor dining or activities associated with school like athletic events.

“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools,” the article said. “Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission.”

While cases of COVID have been reported in schools, the CDC said there’s little evidence to show schools contributed “meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

The CDC pointed to 11 school districts in North Carolina that had more than 90,000 students and staff attend in-person learning for nine weeks in the fall of 2020.

During this time, the districts recorded 32 infections within the school, while the communities saw 773 infections, the CDC said.

In a report by the CDC released Tuesday, data from 17 schools in rural Wisconsin, consisting of nearly 5,000 students and 650 staff, again, showed much lower infection rates in schools than within the communities.

During 13 weeks in the fall of 2020, while staff and students wore masks, there were 191 COVID-19 cases in staff and students, with only 7 of these cases determined to result from in-school transmission, the CDC said.

That’s not to say spread couldn’t occur in schools.

The CDC said a large high school in Israel saw more than 175 cases between students and teachers in May of 2020. However, the federal agency said crowded classrooms, a lack of masks and continuous recycled air through air conditioners all played roles in the rapid spread.

“Decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the US. Some of these decisions may be difficult,” the article said.

While the CDC emphasized the low-risk of transmission with classroom learning, it said athletic events associated with schools have been linked to rapid spread.

The CDC said a high school wrestling event in December 2020 included about 130 participants. With only half being tested, 38 individuals tested positive for the coronavirus. Through contact tracing at least 446 individuals were identified after the events. The CDC said that at least one death was reported as a result of secondary transmission after the wrestling tournament.

“Even though high school athletics are highly valued by many students and parents, indoor practice or competition and school-related social gatherings with limited adherence to physical distancing and other mitigation strategies could jeopardize the safe operation of in-person education,” the CDC said.

Story by Michael Bonner, masslive.com