CDC school guidance emphasizes masks and social distancing, not vaccinations

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Face masks and social distancing of at least six feet should be prioritized for teachers and students in K-12 schools as they reopen, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized on Friday as it released a new operational strategy for schools alongside new guidance from the Education Department.

The highly anticipated guidelines from President Joe Biden’s administration and federal health officials arrived in the midst of a fierce nationwide debate over reopening schools. Teachers unions have clashed with local officials over safety protocols, even as some school systems allow face-to-face classes despite high death tolls and infection rates in surrounding areas.

“These two strategies are incredibly important in areas that have high community spread of Covid-19, which right now is the vast majority of communities in the United States,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Friday. “We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask wearing.”

Teacher vaccinations can also serve as an “additional layer of protection” atop masking, distancing, hand-washing, facility cleaning and rapid contact tracing, plus quarantines for the infected, Walensky said. She urged states to prioritize educators for vaccinations. But the CDC’s guidance reiterates that access to vaccines "should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction."

The Education Department released what it described as the first volume of a handbook meant to guide educators on masking and physical distancing, which officials said was intended to supplement the CDC operational strategy.

The guidelines prompt questions about how Washington’s influence will shape decisions to hold in-person classes during the coming weeks. Federal officials emphasized the government’s guidelines were not orders. State and local governments still have the final say in how and when in-person learning takes place. But teachers unions, Democrats and Republicans began staking out opposing positions in the hours immediately following the CDC and Education Department’s announcement.

Biden aligned the guidance with his administration’s top political pitch. Opening schools is a “national imperative,” the president said, that can only be accomplished if Congress swiftly approves a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that so far includes $130 billion for K-12 schools and $40 billion for higher education.

“To meet these guidelines, some schools will need more teachers and support staff to ensure smaller class sizes, more buses and bus drivers to transport our kids safely, more spaces to conduct in-person instruction, and more protective equipment, school cleaning services, and physical alterations to reduce the risk of spread of the virus,” Biden said in a lengthy statement on Friday evening.

“These needs cost money. But the cost of keeping our children, families, and educators safe is nothing when compared with the cost of inaction,” he said.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate education committee, said the agency’s guidelines “will help us chart the path forward” to getting students back in classrooms. “However,” she said, “implementing these important public health measures to enable schools to safely reopen and remain open will still require a significant investment.

House Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said the guidance “makes a clear case” for Congress to pass the next Covid-19 stimulus bill. The committee on Wednesday passed its portion of the bill that includes $130 billion to help schools reopen.

“School reopening decisions should not be based on politics — they should be based on whether schools can comply with CDC’s science-based guidelines,” Scott said in a statement .

Some House Republicans, including Leader Kevin McCarthy and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), said the guidance bolsters their calls to get students back into the classroom. Foxx, the highest ranking Republican on the Education committee, also criticized the Biden administration for catering to “political allies.”

“The White House claims to approach this issue ambitiously, but the lights are still off in schools across America and students remain at home,” she said in a statement.

The Education Department’s handbook provides school leaders with scenarios on how to implement the recommendations from the CDC — key details education groups had previously pressed the Trump administration to iterate.

Aside from how to implement hand washing, masking and social distancing, the handbook lays out how school leaders can design a cohort or pod of students for in-person learning, safely transport kids to schools on buses and safely conduct extracurricular activities like sports. It also gives strategies on how to communicate with families and encourage at-home symptom checks.

The series is expected to be updated with new volumes as more information, especially on virus variants, becomes available, the Education Department wrote. The department is looking to add volumes with “research-based and practitioner informed strategies and examples” for issues like helping students with their mental health, ensuring the well-being of school staff, providing nutrition and more.

The CDC’s guidance suggested elementary schools stick with hybrid learning or reduced in-person instruction when cases in the surrounding community are highest, and it acknowledged in-person instruction should take priority over sports, other extracurricular activities and indoor dining.

In light of what are now believed to be uneven safety risks between younger and older children, the CDC also suggests middle and high schools remain in virtual-only learning when a community logs 100 or more total new cases per 100,000 people during the preceding week, and when the rate of positive Covid-19 tests meets or exceeds 10 percent during that same time frame. That’s unless schools can "strictly implement all mitigation strategies" and record few infections, or implement expanded virus testing, according to the guidance.

The guidance also places less emphasis on virus testing, vaccinations and ventilation — though officials stressed those tools are still valuable ways to help keep schools safe, and the guidance contains lengthy suggestions on how schools can carry out testing programs. Even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, the CDC said, schools need to keep up masking, social distancing and other safety practices “for the foreseeable future.”

“I want to underscore that the safest way to open schools is to ensure that there is as little disease as possible in the community,” Walensky said on Friday. “We know that the introduction of subsequent transmission of Covid-19 in schools is directly connected to and facilitated by transmission of Covid-19 outside of the schools and in the community.”

Walensky had also outlined key parts of her agency’s perspective earlier this month. She’s said opening schools for face-to-face classes requires getting the virus under control, and teachers don’t need to be vaccinated for in-person classes to safely resume. She also emphasized campuses can reopen with the right combination of precautions.

“The data from schools suggests that there’s very little transmission that is happening within the schools, especially when there’s masking and distancing occurring,” Walensky told reporters earlier this week.

“When there are transmissions in the schools, it is because they’ve been brought in from the community, and because there are breaches in masking and distancing,” she said on Monday. “So if we want to get our schools open — and our schools open safely and well — the best way to do that is to decrease the community spread.”

Walensky has faced some skepticism over how much sway the White House had over the new guidance. Over the summer, top White House officials had pressured the CDC to downplay the risks of getting kids back to the classroom to prop up former President Donald Trump’s threat to fully reopen schools or risk losing federal funding. The Government Accountability Office has also slammed the administration’s guidance as inconsistent and unclear.

“We’ve used stronger language than prior guidance,” Walensky said.

“We’ve been much more prescriptive here, as to putting some guardrails on what can and should be done in order to get to a safe opening. And I can assure you that this is free from political meddling,” she said.

The White House has offered shifting explanations for what “open” means, and how Biden will reach his goal of resuming face-to-face classes at the majority of K-8 schools by the end of his first 100 days in office.

“Open,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki defined it to reporters, means educators are teaching students in-person at least one day a week. Then on Wednesday, Psaki said that goal is “not the ceiling” but “the bar we’re trying to leap over and exceed."

“The President will not rest until every school is open five days a week," Psaki said Thursday. "That is our goal."

The nation’s two largest teachers unions endorsed the new guidance, which they lauded as a much needed “reset” and partnership because it included input from education groups.

“This set of safeguards should have been done 10 months ago,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in a statement. “Instead, the previous administration meddled with the facts and stoked mass chaos and confusion. Now we have the chance for a rapid reset.”

The National Education Association cautioned that the standards outlined have not been met in some schools that have reopened and urged Congress to take quick legislative action to get more resources for schools.

“We must also recognize that CDC standards still aren’t being met in many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students, which have severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs,” said NEA President Becky Pringle in a statement.

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