The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday called for the K-12 schools to reopen as soon as possible and offered a step-by-step plan to get students back into the classrooms and resolve a debate that separates the parishes across the country.
The guidelines highlight the growing evidence that schools can safely open if they take steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The agency said that even in communities with high transmission rates, elementary school students can at least receive some in-person tuition safely.
Middle and high school students, the agency said, can safely attend classroom classes when the virus is less common, but may need to switch to hybrid or distance learning in communities with intense outbreaks.
“The CDC’s operational strategy is based on science and the best available knowledge,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, on Friday in a call with reporters.
The guidelines come amid an intensifying debate. Although parents in some districts are frustrated with closed schools, some teachers and their unions refuse to return to classrooms that they consider unsafe.
School enrollment in public schools has declined in many districts. Education and civil rights activists are concerned about the harm to children who have not been in the classroom for nearly a year.
The recommendations strike a middle ground between those who want to see personal learning resume and those who fear that schools reopening will spread the virus.
In advice that may disappoint some teachers, the document says that vaccinating educators should be a priority, but not a requirement, for schools to reopen.
Nevertheless, both national unions thanked the CDC for the clearer guidelines.
“For the first time since this pandemic began, we have a rigorous, science-based roadmap that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and an ally of President Biden.
However, Ms. Weingarten and Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, argued that schools would find it difficult to implement the CDC’s containment strategies without additional federal funding.
The agency’s guidelines reiterate the idea that schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen in every community. However, the CDC has no power to force communities to take measures to reduce high transmission rates – such as closing non-essential businesses – in order to reopen schools.
Under the agency’s new criteria, schools in more than 90 percent of the US states may not be able to return to personal classrooms full-time, noted Dr. Walensky. Nonetheless, the majority of districts offer at least some face-to-face learning, and about half of the country’s students study in classrooms.
However, there are large differences in who has access to in-person tuition, as urban districts that mainly care for poor, non-white children are more likely to have closed schools than suburbs and rural ones.
The researchers are not only concerned about the school consequences of such a long school dropout. Although the data are still very limited, many doctors and mental health experts report that an unusually high number of children and adolescents have depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems.
The agency’s approach has struck the right balance between the risks and benefits of personal instruction, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We’ve accumulated a tremendous amount of damage because we didn’t open schools,” said Dr. Nuzzo. “This document is important to outline the risks associated with this damage and to outline a way forward.”
The CDC offered advice to school administrations tailored to four levels of virus transmission in the surrounding communities.
The agency said elementary schools could stay open regardless of the virus levels in the surrounding community, pointing out that young students are the least likely to be infected or spread the pathogen.
Only in communities with the highest transfer rates should elementary schools switch to a hybrid model, with distance and face-to-face teaching, the agency said. In any case, primary schools should remain at least partially open. Middle and secondary schools should be closed completely and switched to virtual learning when transfer rates are highest, the agency said.
The guidelines also prioritized in-person teaching over extracurricular activities such as sports and school events. If there is an outbreak, these activities should be restricted before classrooms are closed, officials said.
Some experts expressed concerns about the strategy. Many schools in communities where virus transmission is high have been open to full face-to-face classes with no outbreaks of the virus.
The agency’s instructions lacked detailed recommendations for improving ventilation in schools, an important protective measure.
In a brief paragraph, the CDC suggested that schools open windows and doors to increase circulation, but they should not be opened “if it poses a safety or health risk”.
July 4, 2021 at 9:29 a.m. ET
“CDC pays lip service to ventilation in its report and you have to search to find it,” said Joseph Allen, a building security expert at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “It’s not as prominent as it should be.”
Other preventive measures the CDC recommends for schools are those it previously endorsed. Universal mask wear and physical distancing are most effective, but the agency also advocated hand washing and hygiene, cleaning, and contact tracing.
The agency noted that schools refer all symptomatic students, teachers, staff and their close contacts for diagnostic tests and that schools consider routine weekly tests of students and staff, except in communities where transmission is low. The costs and logistics of large-scale screening would be a heavy burden for school districts, some experts noted.
The CDC said in communities with a higher transmission rate, schools should ensure that individuals keep at least six feet away. However, in communities with lower transmission rates, the agency said students and staff should only be physically distanced “as much as possible.”
“We fear that people will not be able to learn fully in person if we dictate a physical distance of two meters,” admitted Dr. Walensky a.
“Many communities have followed hybrid approaches or, in some cases, simply did not open because they could not solve this problem,” said Dr. Nuzzo from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The whole attempt to bring children back to school doesn’t have to fail because of it.”
But Ms. Pringle of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, said there should be no leeway on physical distancing or other mitigation strategies.
“We need detailed guidance from the CDC that leaves no room for political games,” she said. “It’s an airborne disease. Masks must be mandatory, social distancing must be in place, and adequate ventilation is a must. “
As before, the CDC recommended using two measures to determine the risk of transmission in the community: the total number of new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive test results over the past seven days.
Dr. Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease expert at Boston University, said the percentage of positive tests can vary depending on a community’s test. And the highest community spread values defined by the agency are too conservative; Schools would be safe even if there were more cases in the community, she and other experts said.
Mr Biden has promised to open the majority of the K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his tenure. But on Wednesday White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president was referring to face-to-face teaching “at least one day a week.”
Under the agency’s new guidelines, many schools now working virtually should consider at least some in-person learning.
For example, if the new recommendations had gone into effect last fall, San Francisco could have opened all of its schools to full face-to-face teaching in mid-September. According to the guidelines, San Francisco could open elementary schools in a hybrid mode today, and the city is about to open middle and high schools in a hybrid mode.
Instead, the city’s schools have been closed since the pandemic began, and the district has agreed with its union on far more restrictive reopening standards. Officials have not set a date for the return of young children to school and expect most middle and high school students not to return in person this year.
The new guidelines recommended states to immunize teachers in the early stages of rollout, but said that access to vaccines “should not, however, be viewed as a condition for schools to be reopened for personal instruction”.
Vaccinating teachers is very effective in reducing cases among teachers and students in a high school transmission model, said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. “That should be an absolute priority,” he said.
Still, he added: “I can certainly understand why they chose not to make it a requirement because it may not be possible to open schools in time.”
Some teacher unions have also called for strict protective measures against air quality in school buildings, an issue that the CDC does not fully address
In Boston, for example, air quality was a major issue in the resumption of negotiations between the school district and the teachers’ union. Their agreement called for air purifiers in classrooms and a system for testing and reporting air quality data.
Ms. Pringle, the union’s chairwoman, said its members remained concerned about aging schools that lack modern ventilation systems. These buildings were more likely to be in lower-income and non-white communities, which were hardest hit by the pandemic.
On Friday, Dr. Walensky, while the new guidelines should allow schools to stay open in most local conditions, if transmission skyrocketed – perhaps because of the contagious new varieties starting to circulate in the country – “we may still have to think about it “.