The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled Friday a new set of guidelines to help schools reopen, recommending mandatory and universal mask-wearing among all students, teachers, and staff, and that students remain six feet apart while in the classroom.
“These two strategies are incredibly important in areas that have high community spread … which is the vast majority of communities in the United States,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, adding that schools experiencing high rates of transmission should consider doing a mix of in-person and remote learning.
Walensky said that while the CDC “strongly encourages” states to prioritize teachers and other school staff in the vaccination process, vaccinations should be viewed as an “additional layer of protection” that can be added to one of the five mitigation strategies laid out in the agency’s new guidelines.
The other strategies include handwashing, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, and conducting diagnostic testing and rapid contact tracing.
“At all levels of community transmission, schools should offer referrals to diagnostic testing to any student, teacher, or staff member who is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 at school or who is a close contact of a person who tested positive,” one of the CDC documents says. CDC officials told reporters Friday that the agency is recommending staff and teachers get screened for COVID-19 at least once a week.
Walensky said the CDC is not mandating that schools reopen or calling for the closure of schools that have already resumed in-person learning but is rather providing a “roadmap” for reopening. The guidelines unveiled Friday, while packaged differently, do not recommend any substantive changes to the school reopening policy previously introduced by the Trump administration.
“We’ve used stronger language here. And this is free from political meddling,” Walensky told reporters when asked about what was different between the Biden guidelines and those put out under President Donald Trump.
The announcement comes after several weeks of tense conversations between the administration and teachers' unions across the country, including some that have threatened legal action and strikes if they are forced to return back to the classroom without proper protections and vaccinations. Because of supply issues and logistical problems with administering the vaccine quickly, teachers in dozens of states across the country still have not received their first or second dose shots, according to multiple educators who have reached out to The Daily Beast in the last three weeks.
“My county keeps pushing back my appointment,” one kindergarten teacher from Pennsylvania said. “I am so disappointed by the way everything has been handled.”
President Joe Biden plans to open in-person teaching at least one day a week “in the majority of schools by day 100,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said earlier this week. Psaki also said that the goal was a “floor, not a ceiling.”
The new guidelines are meant to guide local officials as they think about reopening schools in the next several weeks, CDC officials told reporters Friday, adding that much of the prevention methods that need to go into place require additional funding—funding that is currently being negotiated on Capitol Hill.
“Teachers should be a priority for vaccination. But schools can open with minimal risk by taking certain measures. It is possible to operate schools safely. The data is very consistent on this... that there’s very little spread in the school environment,” said Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC.
“And what spread there is is not generally in the academic environment. The things we have to be particularly careful about are things like social gatherings after school, teacher break rooms, where teachers might congregate. It’s very similar to what we saw in healthcare facilities where some of the spread among the health care workers was when they went to the break room to have a snack and … they take off their masks.”
Previously published reports suggest in-school transmission is low. One of those studies, published by the CDC in January, monitored 17 schools and said that “with proper mitigation strategies, K-12 schools might be capable of opening for in-person learning with minimal in-school transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”
The new guidelines come after Walensky said last week that the data did not “suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”
“While we are implementing the criteria of the advisory committee and of the state and local guidances to get vaccination across these eligible communities, I would also say that safe reopening of schools is not—that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” she told reporters Feb. 3. The next day, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Walensky had spoken about vaccinations and schools “in her personal capacity.” Walensky had not done so. She spoke as the CDC director in a briefing with other top Biden officials working on the COVID-19 response.
The White House later tried to correct the record, saying the CDC was still analyzing the data and that it would release guidelines on school reopenings soon.