Federal health and education officials urged the nation’s elementary and secondary schools on Friday to reopen safely as soon as possible, saying they can operate by strictly adhering to safety precautions to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in classrooms and in their communities.
In new guidelines for schools, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said students, teachers and staff should be required to wear masks at all times and should maintain distances of at least 6 feet from one another as much as possible, with students divided into small groups that don’t mix with one another.
Also essential, the agency said, are proper hand-washing practices, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, and working with health departments to use contact tracing, isolation and quarantine to reduce the risk of transmission once someone has been infected.
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Strictly adhering to these measures will reduce the risk of Covid-19 in schools even if transmission is high in the community, the CDC said.
“It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services,” the CDC said in the new guidelines. “All community members, students, families, teachers, and school staff should take actions to protect themselves and others where they live, work, learn, and play.”
K–12 schools should be last to close when governments impose restrictions, and should be reopened ahead of nonessential businesses and activities, the CDC said.
Many of the recommendations, like mask wearing and physical distancing were in the agency’s previous guidelines. This time, though, the agency is urging schools to implement them, taking a more decisive tone.
After the novel coronavirus spread around the country early last year, schools were forced to close their doors and shift learning online.
The CDC, the nation’s public-health agency, issued the guidelines as many cities and states move to resume in-person instruction with Covid-19 cases declining across the country and pressure from many parents growing.
Studies have shown in-person instruction is more productive and beneficial for children than remote learning.
President Biden has promised to help reopen a majority of K-8 schools in his first 100 days in office, calling the lack of school time a “national emergency.”
The White House clarified this week that the pledge means opening more than half of schools for in-person instruction at least one day a week, though the goal is fully reopening five days a week.
The president has proposed an additional $130 billion in funding for K-12 schools as part of his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan.
The timing and logistics of bringing students back to schools without Covid-19 transmission has led to sharp debates between parents pushing for reopenings and cautious school systems, as well as tense negotiations between teachers’ unions and city governments.
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Reopening will present many challenges, according to school experts. Many schools lack testing capacity, proper ventilation and supplies, and will likely need additional resources to reopen. It can also be hard to keep students wearing masks.
The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, applauded the CDC’s stronger tone on what mitigation strategies must be implemented and enforced in order for schools to safely reopen.
The agency’s previous approach left wiggle room on interpretation and application, said Becky Pringle, the union’s president. As a result, some schools spaced students 3 feet apart, instead of the recommended 6 feet, while others didn’t mandate mask-wearing inside buildings.
The clarity will also help cash-strapped districts make the case for additional funding to adhere to the safety guidelines, she said.
called the guidelines a one-stop shop for operating schools safely in the pandemic, and said they are based on an extensive, in-depth review of the latest science.
“CDC is not mandating that schools reopen,” Dr. Walensky said. “These recommendations simply provide schools a long needed road map.”
She said that the CDC defines operating safely as having limited to no transmission in schools.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing Friday afternoon that the White House hadn’t reviewed the guidelines, but the administration planned to follow them.
The “CDC guidelines are going to be the guide through which we work with our policy teams, led by the Department of Education and our health experts to reopen schools. That’s what we’ve long said and so we trust the scientists and we certainly trust the guidelines,” she said.
The CDC’s previous guidelines left many decisions up to communities rather than urging them directly to take specific actions.
Schools were told they may consider strategies to reinforce mask wearing and implement social distancing, and the agency didn’t recommend regular testing of students or staff, or screening for symptoms.
The new guidelines take a stronger tone and recommend testing, as well as vaccinations for teachers and school staff, as soon as supplies allow.
“We’ve been much more prescriptive here,” said Dr. Walensky.
As of December, about 55% of districts were in remote learning at least part of the time, and the absence is affecting students’ academic success and mental health, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research group at the University of Washington.
School attendance—either in person or remote—has dropped this academic year, and is continuing to decline as the pandemic wears on. Students have fallen significantly behind expectations in math, and modestly behind in reading in some grades, according to a report last fall by online testing firm Renaissance Learning Inc.
Mental health-related visits to hospital emergency departments rose 24% for 5- to 11-year-olds and 31% for 12- to 17-year-olds between April and October compared with the same period in 2019, according to a CDC study.
Some Republicans have argued that the president should use the close ties that Mr. Biden and Democrats have with teachers unions to persuade them to support school openings. The White House says it simply wants to safely open schools.
School leaders in Chicago and San Francisco reached tentative agreements with teachers unions last weekend to reopen schools.
Chicago officials had threatened to block the city’s teachers from logging into remote learning and the teachers threatened not to show up for work.
The first group of Chicago students—prekindergarten and special education—returned to school buildings on Thursday. Under their agreement, schools in San Francisco could start reopening if community spread becomes more moderate, meaning 2% to 4.9% of Covid-19 tests are positive.
Giving CDC and school officials confidence about reopening schools was a recent study analyzing the experience of 17 schools in rural Wisconsin that reopened last fall by requiring masks and dividing students into small groups.
The schools didn’t avoid Covid-19 cases altogether, but incidence of the disease in the schools was 37% lower than in the community, the study found.
Still, reducing transmission in communities is an important part of keeping schools safe, the CDC said Friday. “If community transmission is high, students and staff are more likely to come to school while infectious, and Covid-19 can spread more easily in schools,” the agency said.
Taking the precautions needed to reopen schools presents challenges, however. A CDC survey of 13- to 21-year-olds conducted in October found that while more than 60% of students wore masks in classrooms and hallways, 40% or less wore them in restrooms, the cafeteria and on school buses.
High-contact sports should be avoided when the virus is circulating widely in a community, the CDC said in another report, chronicling transmission during two high-school wrestling tournaments in Florida in early December.
Complying with the CDC recommendations will also be difficult for schools that lack proper ventilation, basic hygiene supplies or the funds for them.
“There isn’t hot water in many of our schools, nor is there soap or paper towels,” said Kristen Stephens, an associate professor of the practice of education at Duke University.
Schools that are overcrowded—like those with mobile classrooms—will likely find it hard to bring everyone back to school and maintain social distancing, other school experts say.
The Philadelphia School District and its teachers union are battling over ventilation in district schools. Negotiations on resuming in-person learning have reached an impasse because the union says that school buildings are unsafe.
Testing regularly for the virus could provide an extra layer of protection for staff and families, but is logistically complex and most schools would need significant resources to implement it, according to two reports released last week by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Some teachers and parents want to require that teachers get vaccinated, but many states haven’t prioritized teachers for the shots or lack enough doses to inoculate them. Some teachers are also hesitant to get the vaccine.
Currently 25 states plus Washington, D.C., are allowing teachers to get vaccines in all or some parts of the state, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Children may be infected with the virus less often than adults, several studies suggest. Those who are infected don’t normally become as ill as adults. Yet some develop a rare, serious inflammatory syndrome, and children with underlying conditions are at higher risk of severe illness.
Yet 203 children 18 years old or younger had died as of Jan. 27, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the CDC. One-third of children who are hospitalized have been treated in intensive-care units, and Hispanic and Black children are at higher risk.
The number of school-aged children who develop Covid-19 has been on the rise, according to the CDC. About 9.3% of all diagnosed cases in the U.S. are among children ages 5 to 17, according to data collected by the agency.
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