The American Academy of Pediatrics sparks debate by recommending that kids return to classrooms

The American Academy of Pediatrics is “strongly” recommending that schools physically welcome back students in the fall instead of continuing remote learning — and the organization is already getting pushback.

The AAP, which offers guidance to pediatricians in the United States, made the announcement on its website earlier this week, arguing that the physical, mental and academic benefits of returning to learning in person are greater than the risk children may face from COVID-19.

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” reads the guidance. “The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”

The AAP cites concerns about social isolation, including the potential for child or teen physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression and suicidal ideation. “This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality,” it says. “Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.”

The AAP notes that while children can contract COVID-19, they have not been shown to be a major driver of the pandemic.

“Although children and adolescents play a major role in amplifying influenza outbreaks, to date, this does not appear to be the case with SARS-CoV-2. Although many questions remain, the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection. In addition, children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection. Policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families and the community by keeping children at home.”

The AAP also offers specific strategies on how to lower the risk of COVID-19 for children based on their age, which largely include measures like trying to enforce social distancing, spacing desks up to 6 feet, reducing class sizes, discouraging children from riding the bus, encouraging the wearing of face masks and limiting unnecessary visitors to schools. The organization also suggests that remote learning be available for children and families who are worried about going back to school.

The AAP is getting a lot of resistance on social media from the public, including parents wary of putting their children at risk. But teachers and union reps have mixed reactions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells Yahoo Life that her organization put out similar recommendations in April. “We talked about how to reopen,” she says. “We agree with the AAP that schooling is fundamental to child and adolescent well-being, which is why we worked on our guidance from the beginning.”

But Weingarten says she was “disappointed” that the AAP didn’t address teachers and their health in the guidance. “Teachers are getting skeptical that nobody is concerned about their well-being,” she says.

Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, tells Yahoo Life that the AAP’s guidance also aligns with the NEA’s All Hands on Deck guidance, which was released in mid-June. “When I first started reading the AAP’s guidance, I was a little concerned,” Pringle says. “But as I started reading more, I realized they were saying the same things we were.”

That said, Pringle says things aren’t perfect for teachers right now. She says she’s “absolutely” heard from teachers, especially some who work in lower-income communities, who are worried about the risk to themselves and their students. “We have teachers in school buildings that already were crumbling and had poor air circulation,” she says. “They’re already worried because they have girls’ bathrooms that don’t have soap in them. They’ve been screaming about these things and nobody thought it was important.”

But while some teachers are concerned about going back to school, others aren’t. “I’m not nervous about the idea of going back in the classroom, but I don’t have an underlying health condition,” Kiersten Sponaugle, a high school special education teacher in Delaware, tells Yahoo Life. “But I have some colleagues who do have underlying conditions, and they’re nervous.”

While many teachers have expressed concern about their own health risks, several think it's important for kids to get back to a school environment. (Photo: Getty Creative)
While many teachers have expressed concern about their own health risks, several think it's important for kids to get back to a school environment. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Sponaugle says she agrees with the AAP’s recommendation that children go back to school. “We’re very concerned about teen suicide right now,” she says. “These students were go-go-go all the time with sports and social activities, and then all of a sudden they were just taken away.” Her school has done wellness checks on students to make sure they’re OK during this time, and she worries about students who rely on school programs to get meals.

Sponaugle says she also has concerns about wearing a mask in the classroom, which both the AAP and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend. “It would be impossible for a teacher to teach a classroom with a mask on,” she says. “It’s hard to hear and understand with one on.” Masks can be especially challenging to the learning process for students with disabilities and hearing difficulties, she adds.

Overall, there are a lot of kinks to be worked out, and Pringle says more funding is needed to help ensure that schools can create as safe an environment as possible for educators and children. “We cannot send our students and teachers back to school without the right funding,” she says. “The AAP is calling for hand-washing stations, and some of our students can’t even wash their hands in school now. Until our educators see that our policymakers will provide the funding, they’ll be worried.”

Meanwhile, pediatricians are urging people to remember that these are just guidelines.

The AAP had a “huge task” to come up with guidance, Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “This is not just guidance for one particular school or area — it’s the entire country,” she says. “I think the AAP has done a phenomenal job of trying to mitigate risks as much as possible, and they are big, big fans of trying to get our kids back to school.”

Fisher also applauds the AAP’s recommendation that remote learning be an option to everyone. “For some families, that’s what they need to do to be safe,” she says.

She says she’s talking to parents “multiple times a day” about children going back to school and says everyone has different levels of comfort about the idea. “I would urge all parents to take a deep breath and to discuss their concerns with their local school district,” she says.

Fisher also stresses that the AAP’s recommendations are only guidelines, adding, “It’s not a law or hardened, firm rule.”

Dr. Robert Keder, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental behavior at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, agrees. “Even though these are very long and detailed, they’re still guidelines,” he tells Yahoo Life. “The key principle is that these will be a discussion with each state and that they should take into consideration so many factors.”

Remote learning isn’t perfect either, and there are very real social and economic disparities that have emerged from it, Keder says, adding, “It’s been a real struggle for some families.”

At the same time, infectious disease experts say the AAP isn’t incorrect about the risk to children, although what this means for adults is debatable.

If schools do welcome children back to the classroom, “it will be important to have precautions in place for vulnerable populations involved in education,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. However, he says he’s “reassured” that children have not been a huge factor in the spread of the virus so far.

Adalja also points out that recent epidemiological information has not linked schools with the spread of the virus. “We haven’t heard much about teachers becoming infected in places where schools have been open during the pandemic and that have reopened,” he says. “Also, daycare centers for essential workers have been open throughout the pandemic, and there has not been any problem with them.”

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, acknowledges that this is a hard call to make, especially right now. “It is hard to predict what conditions will be like in two to three months” when schools are scheduled to reopen, he tells Yahoo Life.

Watkins says the rising number of cases emerging across the country is “concerning” but stresses that, if children go back to school, they “should be encouraged to social distance, wear masks and wash their hands frequently.”

As for teachers and staff who work with children in schools, Watkins acknowledges that children who are infected can be asymptomatic and can spread the virus to adults in schools. So, he says, “the adults should also wear masks, wash their hands frequently and try to social distance — which will be a challenge.”

Overall, Fisher says parents and educators need to be flexible in the coming months. “We all hope we’ll see better numbers in two to three months, but we have to be ready to adapt,” she says.

Pringle agrees. “We have to look at the infection rate in individual communities when making these decisions,” she says. “It may be OK here but not OK there.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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