CDC guidelines to reopen schools: Teacher vaccinations not needed, 6 feet separation advised – USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says public schools can safely reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic if a host of safety measures are taken including keeping 6 feet of physical distancing inside school buildings where possible.

And while the vaccination of teachers is important, according to the CDC, it isn’t a must for in-person instruction.

The CDC on Friday released new highly anticipated guidelines for reopening schools that are still closed and conducting classes virtually as the COVID-19 virus rages. President Joe Biden has repeatedly pointed to the guidelines as key to his goal of reopening the majority of schools within his first 100 days.

The guidelines – billed as a “roadmap” and a “one-stop shop” to safely reopen schools – are not federal mandates, but rather “recommendations based on the best-available evidence.”

“There’s more science to rely on and we’ve learned a lot from that science,”CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters. “I can assure you this is free from political meddling.”

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Other mitigation guidelines recommended are “universal” and correct use of face masks, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and maintaining facilities as well as contract tracing. 

Although the report highlights efforts for better ventilation such as opening windows and doors, it does not specify wholesale structural changes to aging buildings. 

The release of the 35-page CDC report comes as many public schools – more than half according to some estimations – have already reopened while others, particularly in cities, remain closed. The CDC acknowledged many of the schools operating in-person are doing so safely.

“Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,” the report says.

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The report says “vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction” but advises communities to consider giving teachers “high priority” in vaccine distribution.

Walensky said teacher vaccinations can be added as an “additional layer of protection” but made clear it isn’t a necessity. “The science has demonstrated that schools can reopen safely prior to all teachers being vaccinated,” she said. Earlier this month, Walensky said teacher vaccinations were not a “prerequisite.”

The CDC advises 6 feet of physical distancing “to the greatest extent possible.” That’s a more cautious recommendation than 3 feet of separation advised by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

A preschool student gets his temperature checked as he walks into Dawes Elementary School in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2021.

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To promote the social distancing, the CDC recommends strategies such as breaking students into smaller cohorts or pods, staggering schedules, installing physical barriers, particularly in tight spaces like reception areas, and limiting school visitors. 

In-person school attendance “is not a primary driver of community transmission,” according to the CDC. And while children can be infected and get sick from COVID-19, “evidence indicates that children are less susceptible than adults, and may be less infectious.”

“What we are finding from the science-based literature,” Walensky said, “is that there is more spread that is happening in the community when schools are not open than when schools are open.”

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Union applauds guidelines; GOP pushes Biden to open schools

Debates about school reopening plans have raged for weeks as new variants of the virus spread, as vaccine distribution varies widely, as teachers unions in some cities push back, and as many parents grow exasperated with the lack of an in-person learning option.

School administrators have yearned for more federal guidance and support since the beginning of the pandemic. Under the Trump administration, CDC guidance was often vague or conflicting about when schools should open or close.

Biden campaigned on a pledge to reopen the majority of K-12 schools but revised that on his first day in office to focus on K-8 schools.

He’s now facing increasing pressure to deliver. Frustrating many parents, his administration this week narrowed the goal further, saying the goal is to open more than half of K-8 schools for at least one day a week of classroom instruction.

From left, Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin walk up the steps at the Pentagon, Feb. 10, 2021.

Local unions in cities like San Francisco; Philadelphia; Fairfax, Virginia; and Buffalo, N.Y., have resisted reopening, largely because they want vaccines before returning to class or because they don’t trust their districts can implement safety protocols – or both.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded the new guidelines, praising the mitigation strategies and the recommended vaccine priority for teachers.

“Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence,” she said. “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.”

But Republicans said the CDC didn’t say much that wasn’t already known. 

“Today’s CDC guidance essentially reiterates the same guidance issued eight months ago,” House Republican Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La, said. “It’s time for President Biden to stand up to the unions and reopen schools.”

When COVID-19 transmission is safe, unsafe to open

For the first time, the CDC’s guidelines define levels of low, moderate, substantial and high coronavirus transmission and suggest what instructional models schools should use for the risk.

The criteria is based on the total number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days days and the percentage of positive tests during the last seven days.

The CDC unveiled a color-coded chart detailing the four levels of transmission risk.

Anything below 50 new cases per 100,000 people and below an 8% positivity rate is considered moderate or low transmission. Full in-person learning across all grade levels is recommended when these thresholds are met.

Fifty or more new cases per 100,000 people and 8% or above is considered substantial or high transmission, under the guidelines. Schools are advised to use hybrid instruction models that include virtual classrooms during these scenarios.

COVID-19 screening welcomed, but not a requirement

The CDC also recommends schools refer any student, teacher or staff member who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested for the virus. Health officials suggest local officials confidentially provide information about people diagnosed while following privacy laws.

“Persons with positive test results should isolate, and close contacts should quarantine,” the report says. 

Although the CDC welcomes schools screening students and staff for the virus, officials stopped short of including the practice in the guidelines. If school district do take this step, teachers should be given higher screening priority over children because adults are more susceptible to disease. 

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Although the U.S. Department of Education is in the process of conducting an official tally of schools that are closed, many districts have already shifted toward in-person classes in recent weeks.

Burbio, a company that aggregates school district calendars, found about 64% of U.S. students are attending schools offering at least some in-person learning – therefore already meeting Biden’s goal. About 35% are attending schools with virtual-only plans.

Forty-three of 75 large districts that belong to the Council of Great City Schools, a member organization, are offering some in-person learning, according to a tally kept by Education Week magazine and the Council. The extent of classroom instruction varies widely, however.

Contributing: Staff reporter Erin Richards. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.