The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently stated that 3 feet of separation in schools is as safe as 6 feet of separation. The real question should be: Is 6 feet safe?

Right after the CDC made this announcement, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, sent a letter to the Biden administration, citing a study by the Institute for Economic Thinking. It stated: “The critical safety issue is that students are all uniformly at risk in poorly ventilated rooms no matter where they are and how they are distanced. With one infected person in an enclosed and poorly ventilated room, the coronavirus permeates the entire space. Putting everyone inside at similar risk regardless of where they sit. The key corrective abatement measure necessary is wholesale improvement in ventilation, filtering and HVAC systems. The report concludes, reopening schools now before most schools have robust protective measures and don’t yet have broad ability or finances enough to conduct surveillance testing to prevent asymptomatic spreaders of the latest variance of the more dangerous Coronavirus from infecting their community is thus very unwise.”

The authors of the study are Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, who did much of the research for the study and is a clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist and senior lecturer at the William Harvey Research Institute in London; Dr. Phillip Alveldi, CEO and chairman of Brain Works Foundry Inc, a U.S.-based developer of artificial intelligence-enhanced health care technologies and services; and Thomas Ferguson, the director of research projects for the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

It was mentioned by Alveldi that new studies from the United Kingdom state that schools drive the spread of the new variant in communities. This counters the argument that children will be safer in schools and the community will be safer. The U.K. had to shut down schools to get a new variant under control.

Studies found that due to the lack of testing, the asymptomatic children were not being detected; thus, serious side effects from the virus were going undetected. This means there are many side effects from this virus, even for the asymptomatic children. For example, side effects can leave children with heart problems, long-term lung impairment, cognitive impairment that lasts months and neurological disorders.

What was discovered was these conditions weren’t from some other disease that affected the asymptomatic children. They resulted from the undetected COVID B.1.1.7 variant. Because the children didn’t have symptoms, they were not tested. Thus the study found that in order to maintain a safe school environment, it was imperative to have fast testing with quick results. The ideal was two tests per week for all children. If the student population were too large, random samples of students would be tested twice weekly.

The authors of the study mentioned that the most important thing officials can do is: “You need to be looking at cases of exponential growth in your community and acting quickly based on that data. If you see exponential growth you have to act fast. If you delay, you’ll suffer more serious consequences and if you delay long enough a lockdown is inevitable. For the schools and the guidance coming from agencies like the CDC, they need to be clear about the big impacts not the minor ones. Masks, ventilation, frequent testing. Those are the things that now we know make the largest difference. If you do these three things you can open a school safely.”

Researchers recommended one additional thing to maintain a safe school environment — that is a small and very portable CO2 monitor, which cost about $250. One could be purchased per school and easily taken from classroom to classroom, getting a read out of CO2 and monitoring how quickly the air in the room is being refreshed. The monitor provides a log and a history, as well as automatically accounting for how many people are in the room. The device mentioned by the authors of the study is the Aranet4.

New Mexico is blessed in that we have a great governor and a leader when it comes to protecting our communities from the coronavirus. The question now is: Will our state we be ready for the highly infectious B.1.1.7 when it hits our schools?

Dennis Donohue has lived in New Mexico for 12 years. He is a retired state employee with the Human Services Department and has worked as an elementary and middle school teacher.

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