CDC Offers Clearest Guidance Yet For Reopening Schools

Feb 12, 2021
Originally published on February 12, 2021 5:33 pm

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Friday its much-anticipated, updated guidance to help school leaders decide how to safely bring students back into classrooms, or keep them there.

Rather than a political push to reopen schools, the update is a measured, data-driven effort to expand on old recommendations and advise school leaders on how to "layer" the most effective safety precautions: masking, physical distancing, hand-washing and respiratory etiquette, ventilation and building cleaning, and contact tracing.

For politicians, parents and school leaders looking for a clear green light to reopen schools, this is not it.

"CDC is not mandating that schools reopen," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday on a phone briefing with reporters.

Instead, the CDC goes to great lengths to explain that proper mitigation can help keep kids and staff safe at school, even in hard-hit communities, though it also warns that schools lulled into a false sense of security because of low community transmission rates could still spread the virus if they don't enforce mask-wearing and socially distanced classrooms.

The updated guidance comes as President Biden tries to make good on his promise to see more schools reopen within his first 100 days in office. School reopening has become a potent political battle between parents and educators. In Washington, Republicans have used it to accuse the Biden administration of bowing to pressure from a powerful interest group: teachers unions.

Color-coded zones

The update offers a few key changes to earlier language, including color-coded charts that divide schools' reopening options into four zones: blue, yellow, orange and red. Districts with low community spread of the coronavirus (blue, 0 to 9 new cases per 100,000 in past seven days) or moderate transmission (yellow, 10 to 49 new cases) are encouraged to consider reopening for full, in-person learning.

Schools in areas with substantial transmission (orange, 50 to 99 new cases per 100,000) may still consider a limited reopening, as long as they can layer multiple safety strategies in the classroom. In hard-hit communities (red, more than 100 new cases per 100,000), elementary schools may consider limited reopening, with physical distancing required, but the CDC recommends middle and high schools be virtual-only unless mitigation strategies can be met.

The added clarity comes as school leaders have clamored for more practical information about how schools can reopen, especially if they can't afford all of the CDC's recommended safety strategies. For example, before Friday's release, Noelle Ellerson Ng of the School Superintendents Association (AASA) wrote to the U.S. Department of Education seeking clarity for schools that don't have room to space children the recommended 6 feet apart:

"For those districts that just can't make that work, but could make 3 or 4 feet work, what can you tell us about how to layer on additional mitigation strategies to offset the tradeoff that comes from not being able to execute the 6-foot standard?"

According to the updated guidance, that 6-foot standard should be considered nonnegotiable for K-12 schools where transmission is substantial or high.

In a statement, AASA head Daniel A. Domenech applauded the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education "for the coordinated and collaborative effort to provide clear, actionable guidance that school system leaders can incorporate into their reopening plans."

The guidance also incorporates several recent, forceful statements by CDC scientists.

"School should be the last places closed and the first places open," Walensky said recently, a line that officially appears in Friday's guidance: "K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely."

Also, late last month, several CDC scientists co-authored an article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, saying there is little evidence that school reopening has contributed meaningfully to the spread of COVID-19.

Friday's guidance cites much of the research referred to in the JAMA article, including studies of schools in North Carolina and rural Wisconsin that reopened in the fall. In the former case, a review of districts serving more than 90,000 students and staff found just 32 infections were acquired in school — compared with 773 cases of students and staff infected outside school. None of those 32 in-school transmissions involved students infecting teachers or staff.

In the other study, of 17 Wisconsin schools, high compliance with mask-wearing helped keep the COVID-19 incidence lower in schools than in the larger community. Of 191 documented COVID-19 cases among students and staff, just seven happened at school.

However, a new CDC survey of nearly 4,000 middle- and high-schoolers released this week shows how inconsistent mask use can be among older students (13-21). "Approximately 65% of students reported that fellow students wore a mask 'all the time' in the classroom and in hallways or stairwells." But mask use dropped precipitously elsewhere, from just 42% on school buses and 40% in restrooms to 36% in the cafeteria (when not eating).

Becky Pringle, head of the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, also warned that schools that serve more vulnerable students in low-income communities are less able to afford other key protections the CDC recommends.

"Many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students, have severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs," Pringle said in a statement. "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."

The new CDC guidance also warns schools to think twice about resuming athletic activities, especially indoors. The agency reported on an outbreak stemming from two high school wrestling tournaments in Florida, after which 38 of 54 attendees who were tested had tested positive. Some brought the virus back to their family and friends. One person died. In the new guidance, the CDC advises that in communities with substantial transmission, sports and extracurricular activities should only occur "if they can be held outdoors, with physical distancing of 6 feet or more." In communities with high transmission, they say, these activities should be virtual only.

The guidance walks a tightrope on how important it is for teachers and other school personnel to be vaccinated before schools should reopen. While the guidance makes clear that vaccinating educators and staff can provide an important and effective layer of protection, it also recommends that "access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction."

In a recent interview with Boston Public Radio, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, appeared to agree, saying that while vaccination for teachers is "not a precondition" to reopen schools, she considers it a top priority.

CDC guidance places education workers in group 1b, "frontline essential workers," toward the front of the line for vaccine priority. However, states are free to make their own decisions. In some parts of the country, teachers are lining up for their shots while continuing to work from home, and in other states, it's the opposite.

In addition, the guidance provides new details on how schools can use testing to spot and contain outbreaks. For example, it recommends the weekly testing of teachers and staff at all levels of community transmission — and weekly testing of students in moderate- to high-transmission areas.

Up to now, budgets have limited most public schools from conducting widespread, asymptomatic screening with frequent, rapid coronavirus tests, a method used by some private schools, movie sets and, with mixed results, at the White House. The state of Massachusetts recently launched an effort to test everyone at a school once a week using a "pooled" testing model.

For the first time, the CDC's schools guidance also grapples with the new COVID-19 variants that have begun spreading across the U.S. and could further complicate reopening plans. For now, the CDC says, these variants are "of concern" and require more study, and it warns that if the variants begin driving community spread, "updates to this guidance may be necessary."

Political pressure

The Biden administration has been under intense political pressure to make good on Biden's "first 100 days" promise to help reopen schools, and administration officials have pointed to the updated CDC guidance as a key tool for making that happen.

Earlier in the week, Biden's team gave a definition of school opening that was criticized for falling well short of what parents expected from Biden's promise. White House press secretary Psaki said Biden would be making good on his pledge if more than 50% of schools had some teaching in classrooms "at least one day a week. Hopefully, it's more."

(There is no official national count of open schools, but the organization Burbio estimates that about two-thirds of districts already met this benchmark as of Sunday.)

The backlash was swift, with charges that Biden's team, which has promised to follow the science, was instead siding with powerful teachers unions, some of which have resisted a return to in-person instruction until all teachers or even all students are vaccinated. Republicans have seized on the frustration of parents who want their children back in school and the shifting messages from the Biden White House.

On Thursday, Psaki clarified that Biden wants schools open five days a week. "That's what he wants to achieve," Psaki said. "And we're going to lead with science."

Friday's guidance definitely leads with the science, using data and mitigation best practices to help school leaders understand how best to reopen and stay open — without attempting to steer them into a one-size-fits-all plan.

Rory Cooper, who has three kids who haven't seen the inside of a classroom in almost a year, was frustrated by the guidance, which he fears could actually be used to keep schools closed. Unattainable community transmission goals and social distancing recommendations could keep hybrid learning going well into the fall, he said.

Cooper, who lives in a suburban Northern Virginia school district, is a Republican political consultant and says Biden risks political backlash from the very suburbs that were key to his electoral coalition. He says schools in Republican areas are more likely to be open already, while schools in more liberal-leaning areas are more likely to be closed.

"I live in a very blue area and the parents who live around me are frustrated, they're mad," said Cooper, who is a managing director at the firm Purple Strategies. "It's been a year of their children not being in schools. They're ready for their kids to go back. They believe it can be done safely, and every delay makes them question their commitment to the Democratic Party and their support of public-sector unions."

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After almost a year of the pandemic, mundane events like going to the office or meeting in a bar sound exotic. And for many kids, you can add in-person school to that list. Well, today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave some new guidance on when students and teachers can return to the classroom. The debate has become a political issue for President Biden, who promised to open more schools in his first hundred days in office. Joining us now are education correspondent Cory Turner and White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi there.



SHAPIRO: Cory, to start with you, what are the main takeaways from this new guidance? What's new?

TURNER: Yeah. So there are a few things, Ari. First and foremost, this is not a straightforward political push that says it is safe right now to reopen all schools. Here's how CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky put it in a call today with reporters.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: With the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.

TURNER: Honestly, Ari, my impression of this guidance is that they're incredibly detailed and science-driven, and I think maybe the best example of that is there is a color-coded chart in here that breaks down viral spread in the community into categories - low, moderate, substantial and high transmission. And then it matches up those categories with recommended learning modes - hybrid, fully in person, fully virtual, et cetera - and safety precautions that schools should consider. You know, so one great example of that would be the 6 feet apart for desks that we've always heard about. Well, in this guidance, it suggests, you know, schools with low transmission, maybe that 6 feet is flexible, but for in other communities where a transmission is much higher, CDC says that 6 feet is required.

SHAPIRO: And what has the reaction been from educators and school leaders? I mean, teachers have been in the middle of this debate now for a year.

TURNER: Yeah. I think, as far as teachers are concerned, one thing that folks were looking at is, how would the CDC come down on vaccinating teachers and whether or not that should be a prerequisite for school opening, which has been a condition that some teachers unions have been pushing for? In CDC guidance today, they said vaccinating teachers is good policy. It's smart. It is safe, but it should not be considered a prerequisite. In spite of that, I've gotten statements today from both of the nation's two big teachers unions essentially applauding this guidance and saying it's about time that schools got this kind of rigorous, data-driven guidance. So there - whatever daylight there used to be between the unions and the administration on that point, it's gone. I also heard from the School Superintendents Association, which also praised this guidance, calling it clear and actionable.

SHAPIRO: Now, I mentioned that this is a political debate. And so, Tam, I want to ask you about what President Biden has at stake here. He has promised to reopen schools quickly. What does this mean for him?

KEITH: Yeah. As you say, before he was even sworn in, Biden was saying he wanted the majority of schools open for in-person instruction by his 100th day in office. This was a promise that he made time and again. But it became clear that this would be tricky. The White House has since redefined what open means to the point of almost making it meaningless. Press Secretary Jen Psaki defined it as more than 50% of schools open at least one day a week, though she also said that they hoped it would be more. But that isn't what any parent imagined when Biden made that pledge. And the White House is already taking heat for this. If schools stay closed, Biden could well pay a political price. It could undermine his credibility with voters. And his opponents will certainly remind him of that pledge.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about his opponents. How are Republicans reacting?

KEITH: Well, my inbox is full of press releases from the Republican National Committee and others criticizing Biden on the efforts to get schools open and them not being fully open. You know, the politics of this are interesting. I spoke with Rory Cooper, who is a managing director at Purple Strategies. It's a political consulting firm. He's also the father of three school-age children in a Northern Virginia suburb that hasn't opened its schools for in-person education all year long. He's afraid that, after reading this plan, he thinks it could be used to keep the schools closed.

RORY COOPER: We have a fifth-grader, a second-grader and a kindergartner. The kindergartner's never seen the inside of a classroom.

KEITH: Now, he is a Republican who's worked in politics for a long time. He says, in Republican parts of the country, they're more likely to have opened their schools for in-person instruction. And that means voters who were a key part of Biden's winning coalition - families in cities and close-in suburbs like where he lives - are being hit hard by this.

COOPER: I live in a very blue area, and the parents who live around me are frustrated. They're mad. It's been a year of their children not being in schools. They're ready for the kids to go back. They believe it can be done safely. And every delay makes them question their commitment to the Democratic Party and to their support of public sector unions.

KEITH: And if you look at the messaging from the Republican Party and from Republican politicians, it's all about accusing Biden of choosing teachers unions over kids. And now, obviously, it's not that simple, but this is a criticism that plays into very real frustration. Obviously, this guidance didn't come from Biden himself but still.

SHAPIRO: So to return to what is in the guidance, given how complicated and nuanced it is, Cory, bottom line, what impact do you think it's going to have on whether schools reopen or not?

TURNER: I mean, I think there are a few bottom lines here. And, you know, it's important to remember that this guidance arrives nearly a year after most schools first closed in response to the pandemic. You know, I had superintendents who were complaining to me back in May that the CDC should have been doing this then and it didn't. So the fact is, you know, in lots of places, to use an old cliche, that train has left the station. There are lots of school leaders who have been working with their local public health officials to figure out what is safe and what is not safe.

I will also say, you know, there's no official national account of open schools. But one organization, Burbio, estimates about two-thirds of districts are already offering students some sort of in-person learning option. So there has been progress on that front. And one more thing I want to mention is just a matter of equity. You know, there are lots of schools, especially in larger cities, where buildings are older. There's less trust among parents. And, you know, they just may not be able to afford the kinds of safety protocols that CDC is recommending here. So there may be very good reasons why schools aren't yet open.

SHAPIRO: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner and White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you both.

TURNER: You're welcome.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.