The American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization devoted to children's health, says yes. The president of the AAP explained their reasons on the 3rd hour of TODAY Thursday.
"We know that children learn more in school than just reading, writing and arithmetic," Dr. Sally Goza told Sheinelle Jones. "They get social and emotional skills, healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other things that you just can't get with online learning."
The urgency of deciding whether and how school will restart is especially acute for many districts in warm-weather states that are scheduled to begin classes at the end of this month or in August. Many of those states, like Florida, Texas and Arizona, are currently experiencing surges in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The AAP has issued detailed guidance for school re-entry that "strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."
The guidelines are broken down by students' age groups and emphasize the need for physical distancing, wearing masks, frequent cleaning, staggered busing and cafeteria times, and staggering start times for when students enter the school.
The organization's position runs contrary to advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which maintains that online learning remains the lowest risk for spreading coronavirus. The CDC did also issue guidance in May about how to proceed if a school district decides to reopen.
The AAP believes the importance of being at school goes beyond education.
"Schools play a real critical role in addressing racial and social inequity," Goza said. "This pandemic has really been hard on those families who rely on school lunches, have limited access to the internet or health care, or both parents have to work."
Goza also noted that remote learning can especially hurt students with special needs.
"Our children with autism, some of them are starting to show signs of regression by not being in the school and having that social and emotional interaction," she said.
She acknowledged it won't be easy to enforce things like physical distancing and mask wearing among younger students.
"Pre-kindergarten is going to be very hard to keep masks on, but we feel like that you can keep some distance there,'' she said. "But even in that age group, the distancing is going to be difficult."
Experts at the AAP examined school reopenings in countries like China, Denmark, Norway, Singapore and Taiwan when creating the guidelines, according to Goza. The AAP also took into account data showing the illness has much more impact on older people.
"It really seems that children do not spread the virus as much as adults do," she said.
Many teachers, especially older ones at more risk for severe complications from COVID-19, have expressed trepidation about a return to school.
Three major teachers' associations within Virginia's Fairfax County Public Schools issued a joint statement last week asking for employees and families to push for remote learning for the safety of the faculty.
"Our guidelines do talk in there that it has to be safe for the teachers and the staff," Goza said. "So that's going to really be up to the school leaders and local public health officials to work together to insure that safety, and then be really ready to switch gears based on that community's prevalence of COVID-19 cases.
"And teachers are going to really be needing to wear masks, to physically distance, to stay six feet apart from the students and from the other teachers. That's going to be difficult in some places, but I think teachers will be up to the challenge."
The president of the National Education Association, the labor union that represents millions of teachers and support staff, expressed concern at a full return to school. The NEA has also issued its own guidance about a return to school.
"No one wants to be back in the classroom with our students more than educators," Lily Eskelsen Garcia told TODAY in a statement. "The health and safety of our students, families and educators must be the primary driver of when it is safe to re-open school buildings. We, too, want our students and educators back in the classroom, but not until it is safe to do so.
"We agree decisions should be made locally, based on community needs and impacts, but we do have concerns about a full-fledged return to physical school buildings without those considerations."