WASHINGTON – Teachers don’t need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen safely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, schools should monitor a number of other mitigation measures, including maintaining 6 feet of space between classrooms.
The CDC on Friday released highly anticipated guidelines for reopening schools that are still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 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 35-page report stated that “vaccinations should not be viewed as a requirement for schools to reopen for personal instruction,” but advised communities to give teachers “high priority” in distributing vaccines.
The vaccine recommendation was widely awaited after CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters this month, “Vaccinating teachers is not a requirement for schools to reopen safely.”
The guidelines also advise schools to maintain 6 feet of physical distance “as much as possible”. This is a more cautious recommendation than the 3 foot separation recommended by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
To encourage 6 feet of social distance, the CDC recommends strategies such as dividing students into smaller cohorts or groups, staggering schedules, installing physical barriers, especially in reception areas, and limiting visitors.
The guidelines are not federal mandates, but rather “recommendations based on the best available evidence”. In a press conference, Walensky called it a “roadmap” for reopening closed schools.
According to the report, many public schools are already open – more than half by some estimates – while others, particularly in cities, remain closed. The CDC acknowledges that many of the schools that do face-to-face learning are actually doing it safely.
“There is evidence that many K-12 schools that implemented strict mitigation strategies were safely open to face-to-face teaching and were able to stay open,” says the CDC.
The report states that K-12’s in-person schooling “is not a primary driver of community transmission”. And while children can become infected and sick from COVID-19, “the evidence suggests that children are less susceptible than adults and potentially less contagious.”
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Masks, hygiene, quarantine
To reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, the guidelines recommend the “universal” and correct use of face masks, hand washing and breathing labels, cleaning and maintenance of facilities, and contract tracking. The CDC suggests that local officials “provide confidential information about diagnosed individuals” to the extent permitted by data protection laws.
“People with positive test results should isolate and close contacts should be quarantined,” the report said. Individuals should isolate or quarantine at home, not school, and stay at home until the CDC recommendations for isolation or quarantine are met.
When the COVID-19 transmission can be opened safely
The CDC defined levels of low, medium, and high coronavirus transmission and suggested what model of teaching they should use based on what is happening in their communities.
The CDC advises schools to look at the total number of new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days and the percentage of positive tests over the past seven days.
Anything below 50 new cases per 100,000 people and below a positivity rate of 8% is considered “moderate” or “low” transmission. When these thresholds are met, extensive face-to-face learning across all grade levels is recommended.
Fifty or more new cases per 100,000 people and 8% or more are considered “substantial” or “high” transmission. Schools are advised to use hybrid teaching models that include virtual classrooms.
“K-12 schools should be the last ones to close after all other mitigation measures in the community are in place and the first to reopen when they can safely do so,” says the CDC. “Schools should take precedence over reopening and remain open to personal instruction over non-essential businesses and activities.”
COVID-19 tests and screening
The CDC recommends schools refer any student, teacher, or staff who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 for testing for the virus. People who are sick or exposed to the coronavirus are advised to stay home. The report also recommends testing asymptomatic people who have been exposed to the virus.
According to the CDC, some schools may choose to screen students and staff for the virus but do not comment on the practice. Teachers should be given higher priority screening against children, given the higher risk of serious illness in adults, the report said.
More about vaccinations
While reopening schools is not a must, the CDC says vaccination can be viewed by teachers and schools as a level of mitigation and protection for staff and students.
Even after vaccinating teachers and staff, the CDC recommends schools continue harm reduction measures for the “for the foreseeable future”, including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing.
Debates over plans to reopen the school have raged for weeks as new varieties of the virus spread, vaccine distribution varies widely, teacher unions in some cities push back and many parents resent the lack of face-to-face learning.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, school administrators have longed for more guidance and support from the federal government. Under the Trump administration, CDC guidance has often been vague or contradicting when schools should open or close.
Biden advocated reopening most of the K-12 schools, but revised them on his first day in office to focus on K-8 schools. On Tuesday, the administration narrowed this down further, saying the goal was to open more than half of K-8 schools for at least one day a week.
Now local unions in cities like San Francisco; Philadelphia; Fairfax, Virginia; and Buffalo, NY, have resisted reopening largely because they want vaccines before returning to class, or because they don’t trust their districts to implement safety protocols – or both.
Some called for increased, rapid COVID-19 tests in schools to reopen more classrooms.
Even so, many districts have already shifted towards personal courses in recent weeks.
About 64% of US students attend schools that offer at least some personal learning, according to Burbio, a company that consolidates school calendars. Around 35% attend schools with purely virtual plans.
And 43 of the 75 major districts that serve on the Great City Schools Council, a member organization, offer personal learning, according to a review conducted by Education Week magazine and the council. However, the scope of the lessons is very different.
Reach out to Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.