In a move that educators have been waiting for, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines on Friday on how to operate schools safely during the pandemic.
The recommendations, which are more detailed than those published by the agency under the Trump administration, seek to strike a balance between people who want classrooms to be reopened immediately and teachers and parents who are reluctant to return to face-to-face teaching before a full vaccination .
What do the guidelines say about classroom reopening?
Elementary schools can work in person at any level of community virus transmission with appropriate mitigation such as masking, physical distancing, and hygiene, the guidelines say.
The document states that middle and high schools can safely work in person up to the highest level of transmission, which is defined in two ways: if 10 percent or more of coronavirus tests in a community are positive over a seven day period ;; or if there are 100 or more cases of the virus per 100,000 people in the community within seven days.
Middle and high schools can open up at any level of community spread if they run weekly coronavirus tests on students and staff. The agency also recommended that if there is a higher prevalence in the community, all schools reduce attendance by having students come to class on different days or some groups of students virtually learning.
The guidelines state that while teacher vaccination is important, it should not be seen as a requirement for schools to reopen with shutters.
Do school districts have to adopt them?
No, these are recommendations. Much of the country's school districts are already working, at least partially, personally, and the guidelines say they can do so even when community transmission is high.
Is there any way to see if my school is under the C.D.C. Guidelines?
Type of. You can look up your community's test positivity rate and the number of new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days (these numbers are often available on state or county websites, although you may need to do some calculations to find the rate per 100,000 people) Then compare the agency's policy recommendations for that transfer level with those of your school. However, the guidelines recognize that some schools were safely open at a higher level of community transmission than recommended in the recommendations.
Will these guidelines encourage more districts to bring students back to the classroom?
It's difficult to say. In many districts that remain closed, labor issues are the main obstacle to reopening. Some local teacher unions are calling for teachers to be vaccinated, shelter to allow teachers with vulnerable relatives to continue working from home, and stricter security in buildings. However, the guidelines could help districts and unions reach consensus by referring to established research on the safe operation of schools during the pandemic.
What do doctors and health professionals think of the guidelines?
They have been warmly greeted by many coronavirus experts who have long argued that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen amid the pandemic. However, some were confused about the lack of emphasis on air quality, and what they said was a misguided focus on cleaning surfaces, as experts now believe the virus is largely airborne.
Others said the thresholds for opening middle and high schools were too restrictive and noted that some schools could have safely weathered the pandemic with higher community transmission rates.
What do teacher unions think of them?
Both national unions were delighted with the C.D.C. Publish clear, detailed, scientifically based guidelines. But they both had some concerns.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has emphasized the importance of virus testing in schools. And Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, expressed concern about the guidelines' lack of emphasis on air quality. Nor was she happy with what she felt was leeway in language for physical distancing, which left the impression that six feet was ideal, but not essential.
How do these guidelines compare with those of the C.D.C. issued during the Trump administration?
The new guidelines are much clearer. They might be viewed as more rigorous, but they also discuss evidence that schools can safely open at any level of community transmission. The previous guidelines suggested schools use similar community transmission indicators to make decisions about opening, but provided limited guidance. Both the previous recommendations and the new guidelines allow schools to make decisions based on individual factors.
Do the guidelines say whether schools can simplify precautions like wearing masks and distancing teachers after vaccination?
Only vaguely. The C.D.C. says mitigation strategies must continue "until we better understand the potential transmission between people who have received a Covid-19 vaccine and there is more vaccination protection in the community". Many experts believe that some precautionary measures like masks are warranted until all students are vaccinated. No vaccines are currently approved for children.
Whether schools need to continue to enforce social distancing or keep students in small cohorts is less clear. A model examining the effects of various mitigation strategies in schools predicts that vaccinating teachers will have a significant effect on reducing transmission, potentially making the distancing and retention of students in cohorts less important.
Do the guidelines apply to private schools?
The document does not distinguish between public and private schools and the recommendations could be accepted by any school. Private schools are currently more open than public schools, but are also subject to government regulations to operate safely during the pandemic.