Last Friday (February 12, 2021,) the Biden/Harris Center for Disease Control (CDC) released updated, improved, and science-based guidelines on the criteria to reopen the nation’s schools.

The essential mitigation safety measures the CDC recommends for reopening and maintaining in-person instruction in schools are:

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  • “Universal and correct use of masks.
  • Physical distancing.
  • Handwashing and respiratory etiquette.
  • Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities.
  • Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the health department”

The CDC also strongly recommends, when supplies permit:

  • Greater testing.
  • Vaccinations for teachers and all school staff.

The CDC did write that while teachers and school staff should be given vaccine priority as front-line workers, vaccinations are not essential to reopening schools. They state:

“Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. State, territorial, local and tribal (STLT) officials should consider giving high priority to teachers in early phases of vaccine distribution. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that frontline essential workers, including those who work in the education sector (teachers and school staff), be prioritized for vaccine allocation in phase 1b, following health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities (phase 1a). Vaccinating teachers and school staff can be considered one layer of mitigation and protection for staff and students. Strategies to minimize barriers to accessing vaccination for teachers and other frontline essential workers, such as vaccine clinics at or close to the place of work, are optimal. Access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction. Even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools need to continue mitigation measures for the foreseeable future, including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing.”

The CDC also, like other states like Arizona, released a community spread measuring case guide on when schools should be safe to reopen.

Using this table, well over 90 percent of American children attend schools in counties that would be designated red zones.

The new CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, appearing on several Sunday Talk Shows like CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper, said of the new guidelines:

“We have work to do, especially when the country remains in the red zone of high community transmission. As that transmission comes down we’ll be able to relax some of these measures, but the real point is to make sure that the science is consistent with our guidance, which is consistent to say until we can ensure that we have all those measures happening that there would — schools wouldn’t be safe.”

“We need to make sure that all of those steps are happening and it’s masking, it’s distancing, it’s podding and cohorting of the younger children. It is, you know, cleaning of surfaces. It’s handwashing. And it’s contact tracing and diagnostic testing in an efficient manner, in collaboration with departments of public health,” she said. “Not all schools are able to do all of those things right now, and many of those schools are in red zones. We need to make sure as we come out of the red zones and do our part as a society to get down from red to lower rates of transmission, and we need to do the work to get all of those mitigation strategies up and running in all of these schools.”

On teachers receiving vaccinations before schools reopen, Dr. Walensky said:

“I’m a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations, but we don’t believe it’s a prerequisite for schools to reopen.”

Reaction to the New CDC School Reopening Guidelines

The reaction to the new guidelines has been mixed.

The National Education Association President Becky Pringle released a statement, writing:

“Schools should be the safest place in any community. 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.

“Educators have been failed by too many politicians who have defied common sense, ignored health and science, and divided communities. 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. Congress must invest in America and provide the funding and resources that our students, educators, and families need.

“We must also recognize that CDC standards still aren’t being met in too many of our schools. Many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students, have severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs. State and local leaders cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow and which students get resources to keep them safe. And too many schools do not have in place the basic protections that the CDC has said are universally required.

“Today, the science continues to back what educators, families, and health experts have been saying for months: we can and must provide students the opportunity to return to in-person learning, but we also must ensure that every school has the resources to put in place the effective measures to keep students and educators safe. The new CDC guidance is a good first step, but now it’s time for action. If they are applied universally in every community and the resources are put in place equitably for all students, our school buildings will be safe for in-person learning.”

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman commented:

“Today’s updated guidance from the CDC affirms the mitigation efforts that Arizona’s public schools have implemented with public health officials’ support. CDC research emphasizes that schools, particularly elementary schools, can safely reopen for in-person instruction by strictly following evidence-based mitigation strategies. Additionally, they underscored the importance of adopting and consistently implementing actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 both in schools and in the community, stressing the role each play in school reopening plans. I am pleased to see actionable, data-driven guidelines to help us achieve the goal of in-person learning for all students. We look forward to working with Arizona’s public schools to plan and implement these new guidelines.”

Superintendent Hoffman also agreed that teachers should “get vaccinated as soon as they are able to do so.”

Drs. Joseph Allen and Helen Jenkins, writing a guest column in the Washington Post, feel the new guidelines “are too restrictive.”

They took particular exception to the community transmission table the CDC provided as a guide, writing:

“The CDC defines four color-coded levels of the spread of covid-19 in a school’s surrounding community: blue (low), yellow (moderate), orange (substantial) and red (high). If community spread is red and if schools don’t have routine screening testing in place, two conditions that exist in more than 90 percent of the country right now, the CDC recommends closing middle and high schools, unless all mitigation strategies can be strictly adhered to, and hybrid models for young learners. If it is orange, middle schools and high schools join elementary schools in being able to go hybrid. In yellow or blue communities, all K-12 schools can be open for in-person instruction.”

Another example is Allen and Jenkins also found the provisions on maintaining proper ventilation in schools lacking, saying:

“On that point, the CDC gives lip service to ventilation, but you have to get to page 13 to find it under the last bullet under “Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities.” The CDC recognizes airborne transmission of covid-19, so why is ventilation not more prominent?”

They also took issue with the six feet social distancing recommendation, maintaining that three feet, when all other mitigation measures are in place, would suffice.

Dr. Leana Wen, a columnist for the Washington Post, former Baltimore Health Commissioner, and frequent guest on CNN and MSNBC, took issue with the importance of giving teachers and school staff vaccines, telling Abby Phillips of CNN’s Inside Politics:

“I don’t really understand why we’re even having a debate about this. Of course, teacher vaccinations are essential. If we want students to be in school for in-person learning, the least that we can do is to protect the health and well-being of our teachers — especially as in so many parts of the country, teachers are already being made to go back to school in poorly-ventilated, cramped areas, with many students who may not always be masking and practicing physical distancing.”

Moving Forward

Most people recognize that the new CDC guidelines on reopening schools are far superior to the previous Administrations.

To be fair, that was not a difficult task.

However, moving forward, there are some concerns that leaders should address when determining whether to open schools. Those are:

  • The level of COVID in a county area. Be it the CDC measuring guidelines or Arizona’s dashboard, is it prudent to have five-day in-person instruction in the nation’s public schools if the Coronavirus spread is too high.
  • Is the school your child attending safe to have in-person instruction in? Families in Arizona for example can check their child’s school website to see what mitigation measures have been undertaken. Parents may want to follow up to see if schools if needed, have properly modernized their ventilation systems or devised classroom schedules where large classes are no longer permitted.
  • What schools open first? At yesterdays CNN Townhall, President Biden wanted to move first to open K-8 schools, saying the contagion factor for children in that age group is not as high as those attending high school or college.
  • Ensuring all teachers and school staff become vaccinated. While the CDC does not make that a requirement, instructors should not be mandated to return to the classroom if they have not been treated yet.
  • New COVID variants such as those from Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom may pose logistical difficulties to reopen schools until everyone is vaccinated because of their quicker transmission and higher mortality rates. These variants have already led to school closures in the regions they have surfaced.
  • Funding school infrastructure needs to adequately combat the Coronavirus and frankly modernize long-neglected facilities that do not have the resources to pay for all COVID 19 mitigation strategies.
  • Getting children caught up for what they lost in learning over this last year. School and Government leaders should strongly consider measures like mandating summer school or longer school days (while also properly compensating the teachers and staff) to close the learning gap that has resulted from this pandemic.

 

Everyone wants children back in schools. That includes, despite fringe reactionary talking points, the teachers.

However, it should be done safely and only in areas where the science and circumstances on the ground permit.

Not one second before.

 

 

 

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