Feds Lay Out Ground Rules for School Reopenings

Officials from the CDC and Education Department outlined overall reopening rules, as well as school-specific ideas like teaching in the cafeteria.

Students at New York’s West Brooklyn Community High School listen to questions posed by their principal during a current events quiz and pizza party in the school’s cafeteria last October. (AP Photo/Kathy Willen, File)

(CN) — Safely reopening schools, as defined by top U.S. health officials, means ensuring there’s little to no transmission of Covid-19 within them. With a new playbook offering specific, science-based guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aims to help schools achieve that goal. 

The CDC on Friday released its operational strategy for K-12 schools, as well as an updated scientific briefing that leaders can turn to when making decisions about in-person programs. 

Universal mask-wearing and physical distancing are priorities for reopening schools, as they are outside of schools, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a call with reporters. 

“We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask-wearing,” Walensky said. 

Frequent hand-washing, keeping facilities clean, and effective contact tracing are also key to safe in-person education, according to the new guidelines. 

A chart from the CDC explains how local transmission rates should affect a school’s reopening plan. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The report encourages schools to base decisions on transmission rates in the surrounding community. Based on which of four color-coded zones a school is located in, school leaders can look at specific plans and recommendations from the CDC. 

For instance, schools where fewer than 5% of Covid-19 tests were positive over the previous 7 days are in the blue zone, and can reopen with full in-person capacity, provided they also adopt the safety measures laid out by the report. 

Very few schools currently fall into that category, though; Walensky said the figure is below 5%. More than 90% of counties are in riskier tiers — the others are yellow, orange and red — where it’s necessary to take additional steps, like limiting sports and extracurricular activities. 

To minimize contact between students, the CDC suggests cohorting or “podding” students, so that the same group remains together throughout the day. 

Kids are less susceptible to Covid-19, and play a smaller role in spreading the disease, studies show. Fewer than 10% of cases in the U.S. have been among children and adolescents between ages 5 and 17, according to Walensky. 

So it isn’t students who pose the main risk to teachers and staff in school settings – it’s other adults. 

“Evidence suggests that staff-to-staff transmission is more common than transmission from student to staff, staff to student, or student to student,” Walensky said. 

Joining Walensky on the media call was Donna Harris-Aikens, senior adviser for policy and planning at the U.S. Department of Education. 

For students, the pandemic had led to more absences, fewer opportunities for learning and hitting educational benchmarks, increased social isolation and more kids going hungry, Harris-Aikens said. 

“For these reasons and more, we need to get kids back in the classroom,” she said.

To support schools in making that happen, and to supplement the new CDC guidelines, the Education Department released its own Covid-19 handbook with specific suggestions for schools to enforce the CDC measures. 

The handbook suggests ideas for what to do if a student isn’t complying with mask rules, for example, and how to help students with disabilities who cannot safely wear a mask. It proposes ideas for podding and using cafeterias and auditoriums for classes, and suggests altering school bell schedules to reduce foot traffic in the hallways. 

Successful reopening “requires ongoing engagement with the entire school community,” Harris-Aikens said. The Education Department suggests parameters for who should be included in ongoing conversations, which could take the form of individual outreach, surveys and virtual town halls.

Harris-Aikens said the handbook is just the first installment of department guidance, upon which it will build in the weeks ahead. 

President Joe Biden has asked Congress to provide funds for schools to buy masks and keep facilities clean as part of his American Rescue Plan. Funding would also address the mental and emotional impact of the pandemic on students, Harris-Aikens said. 

“We hope Congress will deliver on the president’s request,” she said. 

Walensky clarified that the agency is not mandating schools reopen, nor is it insisting schools that are failing to enforce safety protocol shut down — and said she doesn’t believe she has the authority to enforce those kinds of local decisions. 

She also noted that offering a Covid-19 vaccine to teachers adds a layer of protection, on top of CDC recommendations, but said that teachers will not be required to get a vaccine before returning to work. 

“We strongly encourage states to prioritize teachers and other school staff to get vaccinated,” Walensky said. 

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