The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released new guidelines for how schools should reopen, recommending strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 including universal mask-wearing and social distancing, and noting that school reopening should not be conditional on having teachers and faculty vaccinated.
The CDC also calls for rigorous sanitation standards, teaching children and school staff to wash their hands properly, and implementing contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine when cases of COVID-19 are recorded.
The CDC emphasized that the two most important mitigation strategies for schools remain "universal and correct use of masks" for students, teachers, and staff and maximized physical distancing (at least 6 feet) for all persons wherever possible.
"We believe with the strategies we have put forward that there will be limited to no transmission in schools if followed," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Friday.
Walensky emphasized the agency is not mandating that schools reopen. These guidelines are to inform school districts how to reopen school for in-person learning safely, if they choose to do so. The CDC recommends that teachers and school staff be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations, but did not say school opening should be conditional on vaccinating the faculty.
"Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. State, territorial, local and tribal (STLT) officials should consider giving high priority to teachers in early phases of vaccine distribution," the CDC said.
"Vaccinating teachers and school staff can be considered one layer of mitigation and protection for staff and students. Strategies to minimize barriers to accessing vaccination for teachers and other frontline essential workers, such as vaccine clinics at or close to the place of work, are optimal.
"Access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction," the guidelines state.
More details as reported by CNBC:
The CDC said the first step in considering whether to reopen schools should be to assess the level of spread in the community. The agency recommended schools monitor the total number of new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days in the community as well as the percent of positive tests over the past seven days, also known as the positivity rate.
All schools, the CDC says, can safely reopen for full in-person learning if they follow appropriate protocols and are located in communities that report fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days and have a positivity rate lower than 8%. It is possible for schools in communities with higher levels of spread to reopen for in-person learning on some days or with limited attendance and stricter infection prevention measures, the CDC said.
Walensky noted that more than 90% of the K-12 schools in the country are currently in areas of high transmission. In communities where there's very low levels of spread, schools can even relax infection-prevention protocol like physical distancing, she added.
The CDC also recommends that schools implement a testing program to identify and isolate people with the coronavirus.
"Data suggest that it is possible for communities to bring down cases of COVID-19 while keeping schools open to in-person instruction," the guidance states. "Furthermore, models of consistent implementation of mitigation measures in schools have shown success in limiting outbreaks and infections in schools."
President Joe Biden's administration has established a goal for half of U.S. schools to be open for in-person instruction at least "one day a week" in his first 100 days in office. Critics have accused the president of walking back his campaign promise to reopen schools, recalling that as a presidential candidate Biden referred to school closures as a "national emergency" and attacked President Donald Trump for lacking a plan to open schools safely.
According to a survey conducted by the Center for Reinventing Public Education and reported by Reuters, only 44% of U.S. school districts were offering full in-person learning as of December and 31% were online only. Many school districts have adopted a hybrid learning system, in which students attend school some days in-person and other days virtually.
As the CDC guidelines note, recent research has indicated there is no clear link between reopening schools and the country's coronavirus infection rate.