July 2, 2022

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Here’s the CDC’s advice for reopening schools safely

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines Friday for how to open K-12 schools safely in a bid to help students across the nation resume in-person learning before the end of the 2020-21 school year.

The newly released guidance stresses five key mitigation strategies that, layered with each other, provide teachers, staff and students significant protection from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC.

The strategies include universal mask wearing at school, maintaining at least 6 feet of social distance, frequent hand washing, cleaning and ventilating school facilities and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine protocols.

“While each of these five strategies are important to reducing spread of COVID-19, the CDC is prioritizing the first two,” Walensky said. “Correct use of masks should be required of all teachers, students and staff, and physical distancing including cohorting or podding with a small group of students.”

The agency also described a four-tiered system for reopening based on the number of daily new cases in a community over the past seven days, and the percentage of tests that came back positive over the same time period. To be in the lowest tier would require a community to have fewer than 9 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days and less than 5% testing positivity.

The new recommendations are not a mandate, Walensky said.

“I want to be clear: with the release of this operational strategy, the CDC is not mandating that schools reopen,” she said. “These recommendations simply provide schools with a long needed road map of how to open schools safely in a community.”

How these new guidelines will affect school reopenings in California, however, remains to be seen. The state’s guidelines for reopening schools are currently more restrictive than what the CDC is recommending.

In addition, the United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors in L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, does not want employees to return unless they are vaccinated.

Reopening schools has been a fraught topic for President Biden, who had strong support from teacher unions during his campaign but also pledged to get more kids back into their classrooms during the pandemic.

His administration is focused on reopening the majority of elementary and middle schools by April 30, the end of his first 100 days in office. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week that a school would be considered open if it provided only one day of in-person instruction per week, then clarified the next day that Biden wouldn’t be satisfied with that.

“The president will not rest until every school is open five days a week,” Psaki said. “That is our goal. That is what we want to achieve.”

That could prove challenging in California.

Under the state’s current rules, elementary schools can reopen when the seven-day average of new infections in a county falls below 25 daily cases per 100,000 residents. All students in grades seven through 12 can return to in-person classes when the case rate falls to 7 cases or fewer per 100,000.

Since the system went into effect in August, L.A. County has met the seven-case threshold for only one week. (At that time, the rate had to remain at that level for at least two weeks for schools to reopen.)

Cases, however, are dropping: the 25-per-100,000 standard could be achieved as early as next week. Once that happens, the county would then have to remain at that level for five additional days. Thus, a best-case scenario could have elementary campuses eligible to reopen in about two weeks.

Whether they open or not is a local decision, according to L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. School systems in smaller, suburban and more affluent areas are generally more willing to reopen quickly — and infection rates in their communities are relatively low.

School systems that serve low-income communities, where infection rates and deaths have been high, are more reluctant to reopen.

The availability of vaccines has been a particular sticking point in California.

Local 99 of Service Employees International, which represents most non-teaching employees in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties, said this week that L.A. Unified School District is not yet prepared to safely bring more workers to campus. It also is calling for vaccines. Some Local 99 members, such as building and grounds workers, already are on campus and vaccines for them should be prioritized, the union said.

L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner has called vaccines a “critical piece” for reopening, although he has stopped short of saying they must be provided. Beutner also has said that the virus is too widespread in L.A. County at the moment for campuses to fully reopen in a way that adequately protects students and staff.

But campuses are ready, he said, when it comes to establishing safety protocols and performing necessary retrofitting.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing statements from the CDC’s new director, said vaccines for employees should not be a precondition to reopening schools. It was not immediately clear Friday whether Newsom would want to line up California’s reopening guidelines with those of the CDC.

California has its own color-coded system that applies to all sectors — not just schools — and there is likely to be some confusion with the contrasting colors and the non-matching rules they embody.

On Dec. 30, Newsom unveiled a plan that included a total of $2 billion in financial incentives for campuses that reopen as quickly as state rules allow. That proposal, however, stalled in the Legislature. It’s unclear what a revised plan will look like, although a new version could emerge in the coming days.

The decision to delegate Friday’s announcement to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is another example of how Biden is attempting to move past the partisanship that has characterized the country’s response to the pandemic. Former President Trump routinely demanded that schools should be reopened last year, even before there was a clear understanding of whether classrooms could become hot spots, and Democrats recoiled from the suggestion.

When the academic year started in the fall, schools were more likely to be open if they were located in Republican communities. In fact, whether children returned to the classroom was more closely correlated to partisanship and the strength of teacher unions than COVID-19 transmission rates in the community.

Those opened schools have provided scientists with actual data on the spread of illness among students and staff.

A growing body of research now suggests that schools that implement mitigation strategies such as masking, frequent hand washing, and maintaining six feet of distance between students and staff can reopen safely, even in areas where positivity rates are high and before teachers are vaccinated.

In one widely cited study of 11 North Carolina school districts with over 90,000 students and staff, researchers identified 773 coronavirus infections recorded among teachers, students and staff in the first nine weeks of the fall semester. Only 32 of those infections appeared to originate at school — and none of the cases involved a student transmitting the virus to an adult.

The schools that participated in the study followed strict safety measures: Students attended in-person classes part time, and in small groups that convened on a staggered schedule. They were screened for symptoms upon arrival, practiced physical distancing, wore masks and followed rules for enhanced cleaning and handwashing.

“Multiple scientific studies show these mitigation strategies work outside of school buildings, so there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t work in school buildings,” said Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine who worked on the study.

The authors also found that as long as these strategies were in place, in-school transmissions remained low, even in districts where the virus was widespread.

“We had communities with low case counts and communities with high case counts, and they all reported similar data sets,” said Dr. Ibukun Akinboyo, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Duke who also contributed to the research.

Schools in communities with higher case counts saw more infected students and staff showing up on campus, she said, but the masking, social distancing and handwashing ensured there was still very low spread within the school.

Another study of 17 K-12 schools in Wisconsin found that even in communities where up to 40% of the population tested positive for infections, transmission in schools was significantly lower than in the community at large.

Among 191 cases of COVID-19 identified among students and school staffers in this study, only seven were found to have originated at a school, and all of those were among students. No teachers or other staff members acquired infections at school, the researchers found.

Students and staff wore masks at all times while indoors, and when they were within 6 feet of another person while outdoors. Students also remained with the same cohort of 10 to 20 kids throughout the day, and if any student had symptoms of COVID-19, that student and any of his or her siblings were asked to stay home from school.

Yet another study in Mississippi found that kids who attended in-person classes were no more likely to be infected with the coronavirus than kids who did not come to school. However, kids who tested positive for the virus were more likely to have attended gatherings with people outside their household, had visitors in their home, or had a playdate with other children than were kids who tested negative.

“People are getting infected anyways, whether schools are open or closed,” Zimmerman said. But open schools could provide “an environment where there are guidelines and rules in place to prevent transmission at really high rates,” she said.