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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 17, 2021

CDC issues guidance on school reopenings amid COVID-19

Millions of parents are watching President Joe Biden's efforts to safely reopen schools closed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But it remains to be seen whether new guidance from his administration will influence decisions by local school districts or state officials.

The school safety guidelines issued Feb. 12 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking, keeping everyone 6 feet apart, regular cleaning, quarantines and contract tracing for new cases.

The CDC says schools should be the last settings to close and the first to reopen, making them a higher priority than businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms.

The guidance says teachers should be a high priority for vaccines, although states set the rules for eligibility. (Teachers are eligible to get the vaccine in more than half of U.S. states, the New York Times found.)

The CDC developed a color-coded tool to guide decisions based on transmission levels — positive tests and new cases — each week.

If it were strictly followed, many schools would be closed. In communities with high transmission, the CDC recommends that elementary schools use hybrid instruction while middle and schools hold virtual classes. 

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said on CNN Feb. 14 that 90% of communities had a high rate of transmission. (She lowered it to 75% on Feb. 17.)

"We really don't want to bring community disease into the classroom," she said.

With the recommendations out, it's not clear what comes next. The CDC guidance may not lead to any changes in states such as Florida, where schools have been open for months. Many school boards have already made their plan for virtual, hybrid or in-person learning.

During a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, Biden reiterated his goal to open the majority of K-8 schools by the end of the first 100 days. "The goal will be five days a week," he said Feb. 16. (K-8 schools are considered to pose less risk than high schools because younger children seem to transmit the virus less.)

As of mid-February, the majority of K-12 students attend schools that offer in-person learning, either every day or some days of the week, according to Burbio, which aggregates school data nationwide. 

Experts publish critiques

While public health experts for months have been in agreement about the need for strategies  such as mask wearing, some experts criticized parts of the CDC guidance. For example, two public health experts wrote that the guidance about when to close based on community transmission levels is unnecessary and will keep millions out of school.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University, and Helen Jenkins, an associate professor of biostatistics at Boston University, pointed to the CDC's own conclusions that "there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."

The professors also said the guidance overemphasizes cleaning.

"There isn't a single documented case of COVID-19 transmission through surfaces, so why is the CDC emphasizing things such as cleaning outdoor playground equipment that have no bearing on exposure or risk? Shared air is the problem, not shared surfaces," they wrote.

Reopening plans already set

At this point in the school year, districts across the country have generally set their policies on school operations amid COVID-19, although some are considering or negotiating over bringing back students.

School officials have said that some CDC recommendations are a challenge to meet, such as keeping students 6 feet apart. 

"Our population in the school is much larger than it was in August. So, 6 feet is almost impossible to achieve within the classrooms," Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association President Nancy Velardi told Bay News 9. "They do use it for meetings and other things, but it's more like between 3 and 4 feet in the classroom now."

During a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, Biden reiterated his goal to open the majority of K-8 schools by the end of the first 100 days. He said "the goal will be five days a week." 

Our ruling

The CDC's guidance to schools is a step toward Biden's promise to use evidence to determine school openings and closing. We will be watching to see if Biden makes progress toward his goal. For now we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation, Feb. 12, 2021

President Joe Biden, Statement of President Joe Biden on Safely Reopening Schools, Feb. 12, 2021

AP, CDC: Strong evidence in-person schooling can be done safely, Feb. 12, 2021

NPR, CDC Offers Clearest Guidance Yet For Reopening Schools, Feb. 12, 2021

Vox, Why restaurants are open and schools are closed, Nov. 18, 2020

Benjamin P. Linas, associate professor of epidemiology and an infectious disease physician at Boston University School of Medicine, op ed in Vox, I'm an epidemiologist and a father. Here's why I'm losing patience with our teachers' unions, Feb. 15, 2021, Biden's Underwhelming School Reopening Goal, Feb. 11, 2021

King5, Seattle students 2nd grade and older may not return in-person until fall, Feb. 12, 2021

New York Times, See How the Vaccine Rollout Is Going in Your State, Updated Feb. 14, 2021

BayNews9, New CDC guidelines on school reopenings won't mean changes for Florida students, Feb. 12, 2021

Loudoun County Public Schools, Return to School 2021 Planning, Feb. 2, 2021 update

White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Feb. 9, 2021

White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Feb. 11, 2021

Burbio, K-12 school reopening trends, Feb. 15, 2021

Washington Post op-ed by Joseph G. Allen, associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Helen Jenkins, associate professor of biostatistics at Boston University School of Public Health, Opinion: The CDC's latest demands will keep millions of kids out of school unnecessarily, Feb. 12, 2021

CNN State of the Union, Transcript, Feb. 14, 2021

The Hill, New CDC guidance ends up deepening debate over reopening schools, Feb. 16, 2021

ChalkbeatNewark, Newark schools will remain shuttered through April as virus continues to surge, Jan. 6, 2021

San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area health experts: CDC school reopening guidelines could hurt efforts to reopen classrooms, Feb. 16, 2021




Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 22, 2021

Biden issues order on safely reopening schools

President Joe Biden issued an executive order to support the opening and continued operation of schools.

"It is the policy of my administration to provide support to help create the conditions for safe, in‑person learning as quickly as possible," Biden wrote in his Jan. 21 order.

Biden's order directs the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to provide evidence-based guidance to assist states and elementary and secondary schools. The decisions on whether and how to reopen for in-person learning should include implementing measures such as cleaning, masking, proper ventilation and testing.

During the campaign, Biden promised to direct the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide evidence-based guidance on whether to open or close businesses and schools. This is one of 100 promises we are tracking on our Biden Promise Tracker. 

Before he took office, Biden spoke about his goal to "safely reopen the majority of our K-8 schools by the end of the first 100 days." Biden likely left high schools out of that statement because teenagers are more likely to catch COVID-19 than younger students, and younger students may struggle to learn remotely.

We could not find federal data on the proportion of schools that are open, but many are, experts said. As of Jan. 20, just under half of K-12 students in the U.S. were attending virtual-only schools, according to an analysis by Burbio that aggregates school data nationwide. Just over one-third of students were attending school in person every day, while about 22% were attending hybrid schools, meaning students attend in person some days of the week.

"Many districts that were in-person at some point in the fall and took breaks due to rising COVID rates are planning returns during January and early February, so we expect the number of K-12 students in-person, either every day or hybrid, to rise regardless of federal activity in the coming weeks," said Burbio president Dennis Roche. 

But just over one-third of K-12 students have not been in a classroom this year, with absences most concentrated in west coast and mid-Atlantic states, plus many urban areas, Roche said.

"Existing plans to return in-person are focused on K-5 students in these areas. When you think about 'opening schools,' the immediate area of concern is focused in these regions," he said.

While Biden's promise is about the number of schools reopening, looking at the number of students in classrooms provides a more complete picture, because there could be many small schools open while some of the largest urban schools are closed, experts said.

"The real challenge is getting the majority of students back to school, which will be harder, because the largest schools serving the most kids are in the poorest, most-COVID impacted areas, with low levels of health care access and social/government trust (justified, certainly), and high levels of COVID spread and co-morbidity," said Justin Reich, an educational researcher and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab.

Days before he took office, Biden announced a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 proposal, including $130  billion to help schools reopen. Biden's proposal states that schools could use the $130 billion in a variety of ways, including to reduce class sizes and modify spaces, improve ventilation, hire more janitors, and buy masks. The money can also go toward summer school or supporting students who fell behind. 

Biden's plan requires buy-in from lawmakers who have formally approved $54 billion for K-12 schools in December. Biden faces a slim majority in Congress, and it's unclear how lawmakers will prioritize various aspects of Biden's $1.9 trillion proposal.

Biden's order is a first step toward his promise to use evidence to determine COVID-19 openings and closings, including schools. We will be watching to see if Biden makes progress toward his goal but for now we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

White House, Executive order on supporting the reopening and continuing operation of schools and early childhood education providers, Jan. 21, 2021

Burbio, K-12 School Reopening Trends, Jan. 18, 2021

Washington Post, Biden, aiming to reopen schools, set to request infusion of cash, Jan. 14, 2021

Council of the Great City Schools, Coronavirus information, Accessed Jan. 19, 2021

New York Times, Pandemic teacher shortages imperil in-person schooling Jan. 19, 2021

Education Week, DATA: State Dashboards on COVID-19 in Schools and Instructional Models, Nov. 17, 2020

Center on Reinventing Public Education, The Evidence Project, Accessed Jan. 19, 2021

PolitiFact, What's in Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan? Jan. 15, 2021

Email interview, Burbio's president Dennis Roche, Jan. 21, 2021

Email interview, Justin Reich, an educational researcher and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, Jan. 19, 2021

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