Schools can reopen safely if proper precautions are taken amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal health agency said in official guidance released Friday.
“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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a document outlining operational strategies for reopening.
The CDC is recommending schools that resume in-person learning mandate masks on students and staffers, implement strong handwashing procedures, and ramp up the cleaning of facilities.
If community transmission of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes COVID-19, is low or moderate, then all primary schools should open for full, in-person instruction, the agency said. Additionally, sports and extracurricular activities can be held, but participants should be required to wear face coverings.
If community transmission rises to one of the two highest levels, then in-person learning should be scaled back, especially for middle and high schools, according to the new guidance.
“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. To enable schools to open safely and remain open, it is important to adopt and consistently implement actions to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 both in schools and in the community,” the CDC said, using another name for the CCP virus.
The official guidance reiterated what CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said last week: that teachers do not need to get a COVID-19 vaccine to return to the classroom. Still, teachers should be vaccinated as soon as the supply allows.
Teachers unions in different pockets of the country have fought returning to classrooms, arguing the safety procedures aren’t adequate. Some want an overhaul of ventilation systems and other expensive measures that they say would better protect educators from the new virus, especially older ones.
Districts can install physical barriers in schools, close communal spaces, and improve ventilation to the extent possible such as by opening windows and doors, the new guidance says.
Pressure has been building for months on districts that haven’t reopened public schools, especially as some children have seen peers in private schools return to the classroom, and as more studies emerge showing schools that have reopened have seen little additional spread of the virus.
San Francisco on Thursday filed an emergency motion asking a judge to order the district to reopen schools, arguing the continued closure—about one month shy of one year—is spurring a mental health crisis.
Increases in depression and other mental conditions have been documented among children and adults amid the pandemic, and some experts say the rise is linked to the harsh measures imposed by officials to try to respond to the spread of the CCP virus. Experts also note the quality of remote learning is established as inferior to in-person schooling.
The American Academy of Pediatrics called for reopenings to happen in the summer of 2020, warning about the effects of social isolation on youth.
The CDC under the Trump administration issued reopening guidance for schools, but President Joe Biden’s administration wanted a fresh perspective as the pandemic evolves, with new variants emerging and more people receiving vaccinations.
Biden had campaigned on the promise of pushing for schools to resume in-person instruction but has refused to push unions to quickly reach compromises, sparking criticism from former rivals like ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The White House had dismissed Walensky’s statement about teachers as her personal view and had said it was waiting for the CDC’s official guidance to come out. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that the administration’s current goal is to have over half of schools nationwide open for “some teaching” in person “at least one day a week” by day 100 of his presidency.