By Bruno V. Manno for RealClearEducation

By the end of March 2020, COVID-19 had forced almost all U.S. public schools to close. Now, a year later, it is safe to reopen them.

This is the conclusion drawn from a analysis more than 130 studies on the subject in the United States and in 190 countries. These studies include medical research and the practical experiences of educators who have opened and worked in schools over the past year.

Some schools are already to open: About one in three school districts now offer all in-person instruction.

But big differences exist between the districts. Small districts (with three to five schools) are much more likely to be open than large ones (12 or more); 44 percent of small districts offer full face-to-face instruction, compared to 23 percent of large districts.

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The differences include a political divide upon reopening. Districts in counties that voted for Joe Biden have three times the percentage of fully remote districts compared to counties that voted for Donald Trump.

There is also great variation between states. Six states do not have totally remote districts: Connecticut, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. California has the highest proportion of school districts where students only learn distance learning: 59% offer no in-person or hybrid education options.

The new report makes it clear that there is no longer any medical or safety reason for continuing school closures. It covers many topics, including risks to children and teachers, transmission issues, and the impact of openings on the spread of the community. It provides answers not available a year ago when schools closed and offers a roadmap on how to safely resume in-person teaching.

There are three key results.

First, we now know that the closures impose major costs on students and society which must be weighed against the benefits to public health. For example, children now face risks to their personal health and greater mental health problems. They also suffer severe learning losses – especially children of color – resulting in lower future wage incomes. Parents also suffer from serious difficulties: more than 2 million mothers have left the labor market to take care of their children.

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Second, the vast majority of research shows that children make up a small share of COVID-19 cases, develop less severe illness, and have lower death rates. School attendance does not increase the risk to children, especially if sanitary procedures are followed.

Additionally, the data suggests that schools reflect the transmission rates of their communities. The schools themselves do not seem to drive community transmission.

And while high school students are more likely to contract and spread the infection, there is much less risk in elementary school children.

Third, protective measures such as wearing masks, physical distancing, improving hygiene and improving ventilation reduce risks for students and school staff. COVID-19 vaccinations, symptomatic testing and isolation of potentially infected individuals, and asymptomatic COVID-19 screening tests provide additional preventive benefits.

Some children, teachers, and staff face higher risks due to pre-existing health issues and other factors. They should have additional amenities to protect them, including the ability to teach or learn at home.

The COVID-19 public health crisis has led to a national education crisis. But if we follow the evidence, schools can reopen without endangering educators, families, students or the community.

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