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CDC offers road map for safely reopening schools

Security officer Alfreda Bacon shows kindergartner Yara Rand how to use hand sanitizer as she enters Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast Washington last week. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that schools can safely open as long as a range of precautions are in place, offering a road map for a return to classrooms that in parts of the country have been shuttered for nearly a year.

The much-anticipated guidelines land in the middle of an emotional debate underway in many communities and nationally. Some parents are desperate for schools to reopen, and many experts worry about the impact of remote schooling on children. But many teachers and parents are frightened by the prospect of youths going back.

The CDC cited a growing body of evidence that in-person schools can operate safely.

Even if infection rates in the community are at their highest levels, as they are in some parts of the country, elementary schools can partially open, the agency says. If weekly testing is in place, it says, middle and high schools can as well.

And while the CDC reiterated that states should prioritize teachers for vaccination, the agency said it is not a prerequisite for reopening.

“We’re trying to not get into the emotion of it but provide the scientific basis for how it can be done safely,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Friday.

CDC finds scant spread of coronavirus in schools with precautions in place

The guidelines for K-12 schools are not significantly different from those issued last summer by the Trump administration, but the Biden administration hopes a retooled, more clearly written version will be seen as more credible by concerned teachers and parents.

Under President Donald Trump, political appointees repeatedly injected themselves into the agency’s public health work. Now President Biden is promising to follow the science, and the CDC has a body of evidence suggesting open schools have not seen significant transmission of the coronavirus, as long as precautionary measures have been in place.

“I can assure you this is free from political meddling,” Walensky said.

Teachers unions, which have resisted district plans to return to buildings, generally welcomed the guidelines as offering a workable road map.

But some academics said it sets the bar too high for returning. They pointed to the science that says schools can operate safely with mitigation measures in place and said there is no rationale for tying school operations to community infection rates.

“New CDC guidance gives lip service to reopening but is sufficient to ensure most places will remain closed,” Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who runs a database tracking school infections, said on Twitter.

The release includes a 35-page strategy guide for the safe operating of schools and an 11-page review of the science. The Education Department released a handbook on operating schools during the pandemic, with practical examples and strategies.

The agency highlighted five mitigation strategies, saying they all help prevent virus transmission but are more effective if used together.

Most important, the CDC said, is mandatory and proper use of masks for students, teachers and staffers. Walensky said that most school-based transmission has occurred when masks have not been worn.

A second key strategy, the CDC says, is to maintain at least six feet of distance between people, to the greatest extent possible. To ensure this distance, the CDC recommends schools group students in cohorts to reduce the number of exposures.

But the CDC said that when community infection rates are lower, schools can reopen fully to all students, even if that means they will not be able to maintain six feet of distance. “We are worried people will not be able to get back to full in-person learning if we mandate six feet,” Walensky said.

The agency cited three other key strategies: hand-washing, keeping facilities clean, and contact-tracing when exposures occur, combined with quarantining people who may have been exposed.

Notably missing from this list was a strong recommendation to improve ventilation systems, a point of sharp debate, particularly in school districts with older facilities. The CDC mentions the value of opening doors and windows but does not discuss expensive upgrades that many have said are critical to mitigating transmission.

Masks should fit better or be doubled up to protect against coronavirus variants, CDC says

In its new guidelines, the CDC offered a color-coded rubric, based on community infection rates, to help systems determine what level of in-person learning is appropriate. But made clear some in-person schooling should be available even when rates are high, if mitigation strategies are in place.

The CDC recommends assessing transmission in the community based on the total number of cases per 100,000 people in the past week, and the percentage of tests that come back positive.

Based on those two factors, the CDC classifies communities as in one of four color-coded zones.

Communities in the “blue” and “yellow” zones, those with the lowest levels of infection, can operate with full in-person learning, the agency said. The CDC recommended schools in the ‘orange” zone, with “substantial” transmission, operate with reduced attendance, which could mean a hybrid system in which students are in school part of the time and at learning virtually the rest of the time.

Finally, schools in “red” zones, the highest levels of transmission, can operate hybrid programs for all grades as long as they conduct screening tests for the virus. If they do not do this testing, the CDC suggests red-zone districts offer hybrid programs in elementary school and keep middle and high schools virtual only.

Not every state will follow these guidelines. In Florida, schools were ordered to fully open last summer, and the state education department said Friday that Florida schools should remain fully open, even if CDC guidelines would suggest ratcheting back to a hybrid format, given infection rates.

“Unlike much of the nation, Florida’s schools have been operating safely for in-person instruction since last August,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a statement.

Like Trump before him, Biden has urged schools to reopen.

Biden’s goal to reopen schools meets high-stakes political test

Unlike Trump, Biden has repeatedly tempered his call with an emphasis on safety, careful not to stray too far from teachers unions, among his closest allies. He has said schools should not be expected to reopen until they have this guidance from the CDC and funding from Congress to implement the recommendations. He has asked for $130 billion for K-12 schools, and lawmakers appear set to deliver it.

The question now is whether recommendations from the Biden administration will carry more weight with teachers and their unions, which have resisted returning in many places, and with parents — particularly parents of color — who believe it is too dangerous to return.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, said teachers are likely to have more confidence now because of the new administration’s commitment to follow science. Trump’s push to reopen schools was embraced in GOP strongholds but was seen by many Democrats as driven by a desire to minimize the political impact of the pandemic.

“I believe that the CDC has done their due diligence in following the science and reaching the conclusion that if schools put in place all of these mitigation factors and they have the resources, then it is safe to return to in-person learning,” Pringle said.

She said she hopes school districts will work with teachers to study and implement these guidelines and said they will empower unions to demand that school systems fully implement the recommendations. Nonetheless, she said, some teachers may still resist a return to campuses.

“I’m not going to make a blanket statement that teachers will go along,” she said. “It will vary from place to place.”

Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for the AASA, which represents school superintendents, said she hopes the new guidelines will boost efforts of district leaders who are trying to reopen but running into resistance.

“The most important thing this guidance can do is provide leverage to district leaders to convince teachers and parents to agree to in-person learning,” she said.

Already, Pudelski said, the conversation is shifting from whether the CDC’s reopening message is trustworthy to whether districts are properly implementing the agency’s recommendations. That, she said, “is a very different thing.”

Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.