Feb 12, 2021 - Health

CDC releases guidelines on safely reopening schools

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

School reopenings should be contingent on community transmission rates and should be a priority over restaurants and other nonessential businesses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Friday.

Why it matters: America's educators have been calling on the health agency to issue clear and useful guidance for schools, following mixed signals sent by the Trump administration last year.

The state of play: K–12 schools should close only after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely, the guidance says.

  • For elementary schools: Masking, physical distancing and hygiene can allow students to attend in person at any level of community virus transmission.
  • For middle and high schools: Attendance can continue in-person as long as the community is not in the highest threshold of transmission.

Four color-coded "zones", blue, yellow, orange and red, reflecting community transmission correspond to the types of instruction K-12 schools can use: 

  1. Full in-person
  2. Hybrid
  3. Reduced attendance
  4. Virtual-only

By the numbers: The guidance is based on total cases per 100,000 over 7 days in a community, or rate of positive tests. A community with the highest transmission threshold, or red, would have greater than 100 cases per 100,000 daily or a positivity rate more than 10%.

Aside from masking and hygiene, the Education Department suggests using cafeterias and auditoriums for classes, staggering bell schedules and assigning one seat per row on buses.

  • In-person teaching should be prioritized before sports or other extracurriculars.
  • Districts with lower-income students or populations with disabilities should be prioritized for in-person instruction.
  • Families of students at risk for severe illness can opt-out of in-person instruction.
  • Teachers should be prioritized for vaccination but it should not be mandatory for reopening.

Between the lines: The guidance does not mean schools will reopen right away, despite new thresholds and communication to what districts should prioritize. Many parents still want to wait and see what happens before sending their kids back to school.

The big picture: Opening K-12 schools is a topic of intense disagreement among teachers and parents. Teachers unions have become a prominent feature of school reopening debates along with the public's anger.

  • The science still says K-12 in-person school attendance is not a primary driver of community transmission. But when community rates of COVID-19 are high, so is an increased likelihood that infections could be transmitted within a school setting.

Background: President Biden has pledged to reopen K-8 schools within his first 100 days, but the White House has run into challenges it didn't foresee in December like delays in vaccine rollouts and the emergence of new virus variants.

  • Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday after Biden committed to having the majority of schools open by his 100th day in office, that he meant more than 50% of them teaching at least one day per week in-person.

Yes, but: The Biden administration's bar may have been set too low, some experts say. Several nationwide databases tracking school reopenings show that 64% of elementary and middle school students are already seeing some in-person instruction, according to Tuesday data from Burbio's School Opening Tracker.

  • And several state legislatures like Virginia, Wisconsin and Tennessee even took reopening guidance into their own hands this month, fearful if they wait any longer, there won't be enough time to safely orchestrate in-person learning this academic school year.

What they're saying: "It just gives us more clarity around the information gathering that we need to do to be able to take charge of this pandemic. It’s long overdue," Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for safe and healthy schools, tells Axios.

  • "It gives us some hope that there will be clarity and transparency in what’s being reported and also around expectations so we can start ti understand how we can move forward," she added.

"For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening," American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

  • “We remain supportive of widespread testing—especially as mutant strains multiply in areas of uncontrolled community spread—and we urge the CDC to remain flexible as more data comes to light."

The other side: "No, a tiered system for reopening is not based in science. We had up to 40% test positivity rate in our WI study and minimal disease spread in school; none to teachers. <6ft distancing. The new guidelines fail to protect our youth," Tracey Hoeg, senior author of the study of Wisconsin schools that was published by the CDC, tweeted.

What to watch: Much of the supplies, testing and infrastructure for ventilation is contingent on what Congress is willing to divvy out to the states.

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