The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday called for the K-12 schools to reopen soon and offered a phased plan to get students back into classrooms and resolve a debate that is dividing communities across the country .
The guidelines highlight 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 safely receive some personal instruction.
Middle and high school students, the agency said, can safely take in-person classes if the virus is less common, but may need to switch to hybrid or distance learning in communities with high-intensity outbreaks.
“CDC’s operational strategy is based on scientific evidence and the best available evidence,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, in an interview with reporters on Friday.
The guidelines arrive in an intensifying debate. Even when parents in some districts with closed schools are frustrated, some teachers and their unions refuse to return to classrooms they consider unsafe.
Public school enrollment has declined in many districts. Education and civil rights activists are concerned about the harm to children who have been out of the classroom for nearly a year.
The recommendations strike a middle ground between those who seek resumption of personal learning and those who fear that reopening schools will spread the virus.
In advice that may disappoint some teachers, the document states that vaccination of 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 ally of President Biden.
However, Ms. Weingarten and Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, argued that schools could find it difficult to implement the CDC’s mitigation strategies without additional federal funding.
The agency’s guidance reiterates the idea that schools should be the last to close in a community and the first to reopen. However, the CDC has no power to force communities to take action to reduce high transmission rates – such as closing unnecessary businesses – to reopen schools.
According to the agency’s new criteria, schools in more than 90 percent of the US states were unable to return to personal classrooms all day, according to Dr. Walensky. Even so, the majority of districts offer at least face-to-face learning, and about half of the country’s students study in classrooms.
However, there are wide variations in the types of people who have access to in-person tuition. The neighborhoods are mainly educated to poor, non-white children who are more likely to have closed schools than in suburban and rural areas.
Researchers are not only concerned about the academic consequences of dropping out of school so long. Although the data are still very limited, many doctors and mental health experts report unusually high numbers of children and adolescents who are depressed, anxious, or have other mental health problems.
The agency’s approach striked the right balance between the risks and benefits of in-person teaching, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We have done a tremendous amount of damage because we haven’t opened schools,” said Dr. Nuzzo. “This document is important to identify the risks associated with this damage and to find a way forward.”
The CDC advised school administrators who were tailored to four levels of virus transmission in the surrounding communities.
The agency said elementary schools could stay open regardless of the virus concentration in the surrounding community, suggesting evidence that young students are the least likely to be infected or spread the pathogen.
Only in communities with the highest levels of transmission should elementary schools switch to a hybrid model of distance learning and in-person tuition, the agency said. Primary schools should in any case remain at least partially open. Middle schools and high schools should close completely and switch to virtual learning when transfer rates are highest, the agency said.
The guidelines also prioritized personal instruction over extracurricular activities such as sports and school events. In the event of an outbreak, these activities should be restricted before classrooms are closed.
Some experts expressed concerns about the strategy. Many schools in communities where virus transmission is high have been open to face-to-face teaching without virus outbreaks.
The agency’s guidelines lacked detailed recommendations on how to improve ventilation in schools, an important protection.
In a brief paragraph, the CDC suggested schools open windows and doors to increase circulation, but said they should not be opened “if it poses a safety or health risk”.
Apr. 12, 2021 at 11:21 ET
“CDC pays lip service to ventilation in its report and you need to look for it,” said Joseph Allen, 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 has recommended for schools are those it has previously approved. 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 for students and staff, except in communities where transmission is low. The costs and logistics of a comprehensive screening would place a heavy burden on school districts, some experts noted.
The CDC said in higher transmission schools, schools should ensure that individuals maintain at least six feet of physical distance. However, in communities with lower transmission rates, the agency said students and staff should only be physically distant “as much as possible”.
“We are concerned that if we mandate a physical distance of six feet, people will not be able to fully learn in person again,” said Dr. Walensky too.
“Many communities have followed hybrid approaches or, in some cases, simply didn’t open because they couldn’t figure out this distance 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 collapse over it.”
But Ms. Pringle of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, said there should be no leeway for physical distancing or other mitigation strategies.
“We need detailed guidance from the CDC that leaves no room for political games,” she said. “This is an airborne disease. Masks must be mandated, social distance must be maintained, 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 tests positive can depend on how many tests a community does. And the highest levels of community diffusion set 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 pledged to open the majority of the K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his administration. But on Wednesday White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president was referring to in-person tuition “at least one day a week.”
Under the agency’s new guidelines, many schools that are now working virtually should consider at least some personal learning.
For example, if the new recommendations had gone into effect last fall, San Francisco could have opened all of its schools for personal teaching in mid-September. Today San Francisco could open elementary schools in a hybrid mode under the guidelines, and the city is on the verge of opening middle and high schools in a hybrid mode.
Instead, the city’s schools have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and the district has reached agreement with its union on far more restrictive reopening standards. Officials haven’t set a date to bring young children back to school, and they have said they don’t expect most middle and high school students to return in person this year.
The new guidelines recommended states immunize teachers in the early stages of rollout, but said that access to vaccines “should still not be viewed as a requirement for schools to be reopened for personal instruction”.
Vaccinating teachers is very effective in reducing cases in both teachers and students in a high school transmission model, said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It should be an absolute priority,” he said.
Still, he added, “I can see for sure why they chose not to make this a requirement as it may not be possible to open schools in time.”
Some teacher unions have also asked for strict air quality protection in school buildings, an issue that is not fully addressed by the CDC
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 included air purifiers in classrooms and a system for testing and reporting air quality data.
Ms. Pringle, the union president, said its members remained concerned about aging schools without modern ventilation systems. It was more likely these buildings were in low-income, non-white communities, which were hardest hit by the pandemic.
On Friday, Dr. Walensky, while the new guidelines should allow schools to remain open in most local conditions, if transmission skyrockets – possibly due to the contagious new varieties that are starting to circulate in the country – “we may need to reconsider . “