July 13, 2024

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CDC Issues Guidance for Safely Reopening Schools | Education News

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new and lengthy guidance Friday for how to safely reopen schools for in-person learning – the first issued under the Biden administration and one school leaders across the country have been long awaiting as they grapple over what’s become the most contentious political debate of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I recognize that the decision on when and how to begin in person learning is one that must be based on a thorough review of what the science tells us works and an understanding of the lived experiences, challenges and perspectives of teachers, school staff, parents and students,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in unveiling the new, non-binding guidance. “I know that teachers, parents and state and local leaders have been stretched thin trying to navigate this pandemic. Instead of asking them to piece together a patchwork of guidances by topic, we believed it was important to create a one-stop shop to provide scientific information they need.”

The guidance represents the first comprehensive set of recommendations from the CDC for how classes can safely resume since the coronavirus pandemic first shuttered schools across the country for more than 50 million children in the U.S.

The guidance provides examples of how districts can oversee a phased reopening, welcoming different grade spans back into classrooms based on the surrounding community’s rate of COVID-19 transmission, and is accompanied by an Education Department handbook that, among other things, provides specific examples for how schools might achieve the various mitigation strategies included in the CDC recommendations.

The guidance mirrors what’s largely happening across the country organically – that schools decide whether to offer in-person learning, various levels of hybrid instruction or virtual lessons based on the transmission rates of their respective communities.

The guidance sorts rates of community transmission into color-coded zones with recommendations for how schools should reopen depending on what zone they fall into. For schools in communities with low transmission, the blue zone, and for schools in communities with moderate transmission, the yellow zone, the CDC recommends reopening fully for in-person person learning. For schools in communities with substantial transmission, the orange zone, the CDC recommends reopening with a hybrid model. And schools in communities with high transmission, the red zone, the CDC recommends elementary schools reopen with a hybrid model, but middle and high schools should be virtual.

Photos: COVID-19 Vaccinations

TOPSHOT - Health professional Raimunda Nonata, 70, is inoculated with the Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac vaccine against COVID-19 inside her house becoming the first Quilombola (traditional Afro-descendent community member) to be vaccinated at the community Quilombo Marajupena, city of Cachoeira do Piria, Para state, Brazil, on January 19, 2021. - The community of Quilombo Marajupena, 260km far-away from Belem, capital of Para, doesn't have access to electricity. (Photo by TARSO SARRAF / AFP) (Photo by TARSO SARRAF/AFP via Getty Images)

The levels of community transmission are based on total new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, as well as the percentage of positive tests in the past seven days. Communities with less than nine cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of less than 5% fall into the blue zone, while communities with more than 100 cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of 10% or more.

Walensky said that less than 5% of counties in the U.S. currently fall into the blue zone and that about 90% of counties fall into the orange and red zones.

“I want to be clear,” Walensky said. “With the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed road map for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.”

The recommendations also echo what public health officials have been saying for months, including the CDC itself in previous guidance about safety measures that schools that are already open should be implementing. Namely, schools can reopen safely by requiring masks, reconfiguring spaces that allow for 6 feet of social distancing, mandating frequent hand washing and cleaning of school facilities, and establishing testing and contact tracing programs.

CDC is prioritizing mask-wearing and social distancing, which Walensky said are the most effective mitigation strategies.

“These two strategies are incredibly important in areas that have high community spread of COVID-19, which right now is the vast majority of communities in the United States,” she said. “We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask-wearing.”

Notably, the CDC did not recommend that schools require teachers to be vaccinated before reopening for in-person learning. Instead, the guidance suggests that teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations but that vaccinations aren’t essential to reopen schools safely, as long as schools are adhering to the mitigation strategies included in the guidance.

“We strongly encourage states to prioritize teachers and other school staff to get vaccinated,” said Walenky, who foreshadowed that position last week when she said that it would be ideal for school staff to be vaccinated but that it’s not necessary to reopen schools safely. “If we want our children to receive in-person instruction, we must ensure our teachers and school staff are healthy and protected from getting COVID-19 outside of schools, where they might be at higher risk.”

Vaccinations have become the most recent point in the school reopening debate, as some district officials trying to reopen for in-person learning are running up against new demands from educators and school staff who are asking to delay those plans until they can get vaccinated. Securing vaccinations was at the heart of the recent stand-off between city and teachers union officials in Chicago, which almost boiled over into a strike, and the request is also part of ongoing disputes in San Francisco, Philadelphia and other school districts where the virus is not entirely contained.

Reaction to the new guidance was swift across the education community, with superintendent, principal and teacher groups concluding – almost universally – that the CDC’s guidance, though not a silver bullet, is a welcome step to reopening schools.

“The guidance signals a refreshing approach to the discussion about reopening schools,” said Ronn Nazoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “This first installment from the CDC begins to provide the coherent, evidence- and fact-based guidance from health experts that principals have needed all along to address the safety and well-being of the school community and to provide quality, in-person learning experiences.”

Carissa Moffat Miller, the CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the collaboration between CDC and the Education Department resulted in guidance that, at long last, addresses concerns state education officials have been voicing for nearly a year.

“It is likely safer for schools to be more open than they currently are, so long as appropriate mitigation strategies are in place,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “And to the extent that today’s sets of guidance address both of those realities – that schools can open and to do so requires mitigation strategies – it represents a strong step forward in helping more students return to the classroom.”

And the two national teachers unions – whose leaders have come under fire for obstructing school district efforts to reopen, especially in some of the country’s big city school districts – agreed that the guidance represents long-sought, science-based recommendations for school leaders struggling with whether and how to safely reopen for in-person learning.

“Now that we have clearer CDC guidance, state and local decision makers need to be able to look educators, students, and parents in the eyes and ensure that with full confidence,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said. “Now, with a partner in the White House, we have the opportunity to do this right, to do it safely, and to do it as quickly as resources allow.”

The guidance comes as President Joe Biden attempts to meet the goal he set of reopening the majority of elementary and middle schools for in-person learning during the first 100 days of his administration.

Earlier this week, the White House clarified that it considers a school open if it offers students in-person instruction at least one day a week – a much lower threshold than his initial pitch suggested and one that Republicans skewered as moving the goalposts and putting teachers union demands ahead of the academic, social and emotional needs of students.

“His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools, so more than 50%, open by Day 100 of his presidency,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday during her daily press briefing. “That means some teaching in classrooms, so at least one day a week. Hopefully, it’s more. And obviously it is as much as it’s safe in each school and local districts.”

“Certainly we are not planning to celebrate at 100 days if we reach that goal,” she said the next day, defending the specified metric. “The president’s objective is for all schools to reopen, to stay open, to be open five days a week.”

Using the newly specified metric of offering in-person learning one day a week, Biden may have already reached his stated goal, according to at least one school reopening tracker. Burbio, one of the few outlets collecting reopening data, reported earlier this month that more than 60% of K-12 students are enrolled in schools that offer at least some in-person instruction – though that could mean anything from a school that’s only open for students with disabilities to one operating on a hybrid model that offers students a chance to learn in classrooms one to three days a week to one that’s fully open five days a week for all students.

School districts across the country have been under increasing pressure to reopen for in-person learning after the CDC and other academic researchers published a series of small-scale studies over the last few months showing that if schools require staff and children to wear masks, enforce frequent sanitization and social distancing, and establish testing and tracing programs – and if community spread is under control – that in-person learning poses little to no threat. In fact, the studies suggest, in most cases, holding classes is far less dangerous than other settings, like in-person dining and organized sports.

One study that made national headlines last month even suggested that schools could reopen with little risk in communities where COVID-19 infection rates are relatively high – though it was a small scale study based on 17 schools in rural Wyoming.

Conclusions from that research, coupled with the mounting evidence of significant academic, social and emotional harm that virtual learning has had on students, has altered the reopening debate over the last month, putting increasing pressure on school districts to get kids back into classrooms.

The situation on the ground, however, is complicated by the fact that schools have access to varying levels of resources needed to implement the recommended safety measures.

For example, reopening has proven especially challenging for the country’s big city school districts, many of which lack the necessary space to adhere to social distancing recommendations, lack resources to provide enough personal protective equipment and sanitizer, or upgrade old ventilation systems, and lack the capacity and personnel to establish wide scale testing.

Complicating the reopening debate further, polls show time and again that Black and Latino families would rather keep their children learning from home, given the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on their communities.

“I understand this is one of the hardest decisions you have had to make since the pandemic began,” Walenksy said, speaking directly to parents. “We are talking about your children, about your families, about the most precious things you have. I want to reassure you that our operational strategy is science-based with the goal of protecting teachers, students, staff and their families while getting back to the classroom safely.”

She reiterated that the science suggests that community spread occurs more if schools are not open for in-person learning and that there is little evidence that children transmit the virus to other children, transmit the virus to teachers and staff, or are infected by teachers and staff.

“The decision to go back to in-person instruction is not one that any of us take lightly,” she said.

While the CDC guidance provides the first comprehensive blueprint for how schools can reopen safely – and in doing so provides a path forward for some school leaders whose reopening plans have been waylaid by politics – it does little to nothing to change the reality with which other school leaders are grappling.

The Biden administration is hoping a fresh round of COVID-19 relief will help alter the landscape for the latter group of school leaders and provide enough resources to fast-track their efforts. The administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package includes $130 billion for K-12.

“Schools absolutely need these resources as they address challenges around reopening and staying open,” said Donna Harris-Aikens, senior adviser for policy and planning at the Education Department, who joined Walensky on the press call.