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Opinion The CDC’s latest school guidelines are not perfect, but they’re better than expected

Signs in a hallway reminds students to wear masks and distance themselves at Fox Trail Elementary School in Davie, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The new guidelines for school reopenings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are much better than expected. They balance the need for getting students back to full-time, in-person instruction with the reality that covid-19 remains a danger for unvaccinated children.

In recent weeks, I’ve been concerned that the CDC had thrown caution to the wind with decisions that resulted in the precipitous removal of mask mandates. I did not agree with its decision to stop tracking mild breakthrough infections and to not recommend testing vaccinated people exposed to the coronavirus. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that this new guidance requires continued mitigation practices, with an emphasis on masking and testing.

Specifically, the CDC says that unvaccinated children two years of age and older should continue to wear masks indoors. This practice is consistent with what the science shows: Unvaccinated people remain at high risk for contracting and spreading covid-19. Given that the delta variant, the most contagious strain of the virus yet, now dominates the United States, indoor masking for unvaccinated individuals should continue for the foreseeable feature.

The CDC also takes a bold approach to surveillance testing, going so far as to say that unvaccinated children should be tested once a week except in areas of the lowest levels of community transmission. Unvaccinated teachers and staff should be tested, too, and kids engaged in higher-risk extracurricular activities may even be tested twice a week. This substantial ramp-up in testing is an important method to reduce disease transmission. In most schools, bringing all students back to full-time, in-person learning means that six-foot distancing is no longer possible. Testing becomes a necessary additional layer of protection to identify cases early and prevent outbreaks.

Still, there are some glaring problems with the new guidelines. The most significant problem is that there remains no easy way to verify which students and teachers are vaccinated and therefore can remove their masks in the classrooms. It is beyond time for the Biden administration to support voluntary efforts at vaccine credentialing that will make such determination possible for administrators. Until that happens, I would like the CDC to say that if proof of vaccination isn’t required, everyone should keep wearing masks indoors.

In this same vein, I wish the CDC went further to make the case for vaccination. There is some excellent language in its recommendations about increasing vaccine access, including by making vaccines available right in the schools. The CDC could have gone further to incentivize vaccination by making inoculations for teachers and students the default requirement. People can still opt-out, but they must be tested at least once a week. The guidelines essentially get to this point, but being explicit about the vaccine requirement would make clear that getting vaccinated is the easy and convenient default choice. Staying unvaccinated would become the harder option.

There are a number of complexities that the CDC has yet to fully address. For example, what happens if students test positive? How long should they be out of class? What happens if they take a subsequent test that’s negative? What kind of exposure warrants quarantine for the other kids?

In addition, the CDC says that students and staff with symptoms should not be coming to class. Should these individuals be tested every time they have any covid-19 symptoms, including common occurrences such as headache, fatigue and sore throat? What happens during cold and flu season when most kids in a class could have runny noses? Do they all stay home? Do they need proof of testing before coming back to class?

Overall, the guidance is sufficiently cautious yet practical to support full school reopening for in-person instruction across the United States in the fall. Unfortunately, there are many jurisdictions that will not heed these evidence-based guidelines. Texas and Iowa are among the states that have already banned schools from requiring masks. But much of the country has been eagerly awaiting the guidance, and Friday’s announcement will aid state and local officials who wish to prioritize in-person instruction and keep children — and teachers and staff — from unnecessary covid-19 risk.

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