WASHINGTON — Teachers don’t need to be vaccinated for schools to safely reopen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but schools should oversee a host of other mitigation steps, including keeping students 6 feet apart inside classrooms.
The CDC on Friday released highly anticipated guidelines for reopening schools that are still closed amid 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 says “vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction” but advises communities to consider giving teachers “high priority” in vaccine distribution.
The recommendation on vaccines was widely expected after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky this month told reporters, “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”
The guidelines also advise schools to keep 6 feet of physical distancing “to the greatest extent possible.” That’s a more cautious recommendation than 3 feet of separation advised by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
To promote 6 feet of social distancing, the CDC recommends strategies such as breaking students into smaller cohorts or pods, staggering schedules, installing physical barriers, particularly in reception areas, and limiting visitors.
The guidelines are not federal mandates, but rather “recommendations based on the best-available evidence.” In a press call, Walensky called it a “road map” for closed schools to reopen.
The report comes as many public schools – more than half according to some estimations – have already reopened while others, particularly in cities, remain closed. The CDC acknowledges many of the schools operating in-person learning are, in fact, doing so safely.
“Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,” the CDC says.
The report says K-12 in-person school attendance “is not a primary driver of community transmission.” And while children can be infected and get sick from COVID-19, “evidence indicates that children are less susceptible than adults, and may be less infectious.”
‘At least one day a week’:White House clarifies Biden’s goal to reopen schools
Masks, hygiene, quarantines
To mitigate the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, the guidelines recommend “universal” and correct use of face masks, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and maintaining facilities as well as contract tracing. The CDC suggest local officials “confidentially provide information about people diagnosed” to the extent allowed by privacy laws.
“Persons with positive test results should isolate, and close contacts should quarantine,” the report says. Individuals should isolate or quarantine at home, not in school settings, and should stay home until CDC recommendations for isolation or quarantine have been met.
When COVID-19 transmission is safe to open
The CDC defined levels of low, moderate and high coronavirus transmission and suggested what instructional model they should use depending on what’s happening in their communities.
The CDC advises schools look at the total number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days days and the percentage of positive tests during the last seven days.
Anything below 50 new cases per 100,000 people and below an 8% positivity rate is considered “moderate” or “low” transmission. Full in-person learning across all grade levels is recommended when these thresholds are met.
Fifty or more new cases per 100,000 people and 8% or above is considered “substantial” or “high” transmission. Schools are advised to use hybrid instruction models that include virtual classrooms.
“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,” the CDC Says. “Schools should be prioritized for reopening and remaining open for in-person instruction over nonessential businesses and activities.”
COVID-19 testing and screening
The CDC recommends that schools refer any student, teacher or staff member who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested for the virus. Those who are sick or exposed to the coronavirus are advised to stay home. The report also advises testing asymptomatic individuals exposed to the virus.
The CDC says some schools may elect to screen students and staff for the virus, but stops short of taking a position on the practice. Teachers should perhaps be given higher priority for screening over children, the report says, given the higher risk of severe disease among adults.
More on vaccinations
Although not a must to reopen schools, the CDC says vaccinating teachers and schools can be considered one layer of mitigation and protection for staff and students.
Still, even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, the CDC recommends that schools continue mitigation measures for the “foreseeable future,” including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing.
Debates about school reopening plans have raged for weeks as new variants of the virus spread, as vaccine distribution varies widely, as teachers unions in some cities push back, and as many parents grow exasperated with the lack of an in-person learning option.
School administrators have yearned for more federal guidance and support since the beginning of the pandemic. Under the Trump administration, CDC guidance was often vague or conflicting about when schools should open or close.
Biden campaigned on a pledge to reopen the majority of K-12 schools but revised that on his first day in office to focus on K-8 schools. On Tuesday, the administration narrowed it further, saying the goal is to open more than half of K-8 schools for at least one day a week of classroom instruction.
Meanwhile, local unions in cities like San Francisco; Philadelphia; Fairfax, Virginia; and Buffalo, N.Y., have resisted reopening, largely because they want vaccines before returning to class or because they don’t trust their districts can implement safety protocols – or both.
Some have called for increased, rapid COVID-19 testing in schools as a way to reopen more classrooms.
Still, many districts have already shifted toward in-person classes in recent weeks.
About 64% of U.S. students are attending schools offering at least some in-person learning, according to Burbio, a company that aggregates school calendars. About 35% are attending schools with virtual-only plans.
And 43 of 75 large districts that belong to the Council of Great City Schools, a member organization, are offering some in-person learning, according to a tally kept by Education Week magazine and the Council. The extent of classroom instruction varies widely, however.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.