Millions of parents are watching President Joe Biden's efforts to safely reopen schools closed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But it remains to be seen whether new guidance from his administration will influence decisions by local school districts or state officials.
The school safety guidelines issued Feb. 12 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking, keeping everyone 6 feet apart, regular cleaning, quarantines and contract tracing for new cases.
The CDC says schools should be the last settings to close and the first to reopen, making them a higher priority than businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms.
The guidance says teachers should be a high priority for vaccines, although states set the rules for eligibility. (Teachers are eligible to get the vaccine in more than half of U.S. states, the New York Times found.)
The CDC developed a color-coded tool to guide decisions based on transmission levels — positive tests and new cases — each week.
If it were strictly followed, many schools would be closed. In communities with high transmission, the CDC recommends that elementary schools use hybrid instruction while middle and schools hold virtual classes.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said on CNN Feb. 14 that 90% of communities had a high rate of transmission. (She lowered it to 75% on Feb. 17.)
"We really don't want to bring community disease into the classroom," she said.
With the recommendations out, it's not clear what comes next. The CDC guidance may not lead to any changes in states such as Florida, where schools have been open for months. Many school boards have already made their plan for virtual, hybrid or in-person learning.
During a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, Biden reiterated his goal to open the majority of K-8 schools by the end of the first 100 days. "The goal will be five days a week," he said Feb. 16. (K-8 schools are considered to pose less risk than high schools because younger children seem to transmit the virus less.)
As of mid-February, the majority of K-12 students attend schools that offer in-person learning, either every day or some days of the week, according to Burbio, which aggregates school data nationwide.
Experts publish critiques
While public health experts for months have been in agreement about the need for strategies such as mask wearing, some experts criticized parts of the CDC guidance. For example, two public health experts wrote that the guidance about when to close based on community transmission levels is unnecessary and will keep millions out of school.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University, and Helen Jenkins, an associate professor of biostatistics at Boston University, pointed to the CDC's own conclusions that "there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."
The professors also said the guidance overemphasizes cleaning.
"There isn't a single documented case of COVID-19 transmission through surfaces, so why is the CDC emphasizing things such as cleaning outdoor playground equipment that have no bearing on exposure or risk? Shared air is the problem, not shared surfaces," they wrote.
Reopening plans already set
At this point in the school year, districts across the country have generally set their policies on school operations amid COVID-19, although some are considering or negotiating over bringing back students.
School officials have said that some CDC recommendations are a challenge to meet, such as keeping students 6 feet apart.
"Our population in the school is much larger than it was in August. So, 6 feet is almost impossible to achieve within the classrooms," Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association President Nancy Velardi told Bay News 9. "They do use it for meetings and other things, but it's more like between 3 and 4 feet in the classroom now."
During a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, Biden reiterated his goal to open the majority of K-8 schools by the end of the first 100 days. He said "the goal will be five days a week."
The CDC's guidance to schools is a step toward Biden's promise to use evidence to determine school openings and closing. We will be watching to see if Biden makes progress toward his goal. For now we rate this promise In the Works.