But look a little deeper and the problems begin. I was shocked that six-feet of physical distancing is not required across the board. While it is mandated at the two highest levels of transmission, at low and moderate levels, the guidance says only that physical distancing of six feet or more should be done “to the greatest extent possible.”
Recall that the six-feet rule is what the CDC itself recommends as the criteria for social distancing, even outdoors. Many experts have suggested that six feet indoors is not sufficient, and the CDC’s own website explains that the coronavirus can be transmitted by tiny aerosols that can infect people at a greater than six-feet distance. In addition, there are now more-transmissible variants that will make this already highly contagious virus even more so.
One has to wonder: Is this change really based on the best available science? Or is it made out of necessity, because schools don’t have the space and additional staff to accommodate six feet of separation? When asked to clarify during Friday’s news conference, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky essentially admitted that it’s the latter, saying it wouldn’t be possible for many schools to be fully open if its own recommended distancing were rigorously enforced.
Another important omission is ventilation. It is widely accepted that ventilation is key to reducing covid-19 spread. Yet the road map contains scant information about ventilation, saying only that ventilation should be improved “to the extent possible . . . by opening windows and doors.”
This is simply unacceptable. The Government Accountability Office has reported that to prevent covid-19 transmission, more than 41 percent of school districts need to update or replace their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in the majority of their schools. Does this finding no longer apply, or is the CDC acknowledging that because making the change is too expensive and will take too long, schools should reopen without the needed upgrades?
I can understand the argument that in-person schooling is just too important and cannot wait for these improvements. Perfect cannot be the enemy of the good, and we have to accept some level of risk because there is such great harm to keeping kids out of school.
If that’s the case, however, then vaccinating teachers becomes of the highest importance. Yet the guidelines do not require that teachers are offered vaccinations before they return to the classroom. While many states have included teachers in priority groups, others have not. If the CDC included teacher vaccinations in their guidance, it could compel recalcitrant governors to move teachers to the front of the line. Instead, the many teachers and staff who are already spending hours every day in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces will be forced to continue doing so without the needed protection of the vaccine.
The lack of focus on teacher vaccination points to a broader problem: The reopening guidance does not prioritize the health of those who work in schools. Growing evidence suggests that schools don’t contribute substantially to community transmission, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pose individual risks to teachers and staff. And while it might be that a student is safer in school than in an unmonitored child-care setting, it defies common sense to say that a teacher, especially one who is older or has underlying medical conditions, is just as safe in a packed classroom as they are doing remote instruction.
Don’t get me wrong. As a physician and parent, I agree that every effort must be made to get our children back to the classroom, especially younger children and those with special needs. But the right way to do it isn’t to forgo evidence-based, common-sense requirements. Doing so raises the same question that plagued the CDC under the Trump administration: Is it science or expediency that’s driving its decisions? The Biden team has said they want to rebuild trust. These school reopening guidelines could do precisely the opposite.