CDC plots ‘long-needed roadmap’ for reopening schools

Guidance does not constitute a mandate for reopening all schools, CDC director says
By: and | February 16, 2021
CDC's new guidance on reopening schools emphasizes equity, prioritizes mask wearing and physical distancing to keep students safe.CDC's new guidance on reopening schools emphasizes equity, prioritizes mask wearing and physical distancing to keep students safe.

The U.S. Education Department has released “ED COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 1: Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools,” a report that provides strategies for reopening schools.

Among other issues, the report identifies ways to promote equity for students with disabilities. Volume 2 will be released in the coming weeks.

In a telebriefing on Friday afternoon, Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasized that the release of this guidance does not constitute a mandate for reopening all schools.

“I want to be clear,” Walensky said. “With the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community. The science also shows us that K-12 schools that have implemented strict mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open.”

The science is on the side of schools, Walensky said. She emphasized that transmission from staff to student, student to staff, and student to student is rare and staff to staff transmission is more common.

But mitigation strategies make a difference. In its new guidance, “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation,” the CDC presents a pathway to reopen schools through five key mitigation strategies:

  1. Universal and correct use of masks
  2.  Physical distancing
  3. Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
  4. Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
  5. Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the health department

Of these, the CDC recommends that schools providing in-person instruction should prioritize the universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing of at least 6 feet to the greatest extent possible.

Teachers unions applaud CDC

Teachers unions see the guidance as confirmation about the safety of schools.

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“Schools should be the safest place in any community,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle. “Now that we have clearer CDC guidance, state and local decision makers need to be able to look educators, students, and parents in the eyes and ensure that with full confidence.

“The new CDC guidance is a good first step, but now it’s time for action,” Pringle added. “If they are applied universally in every community and the resources are put in place equitably for all students, our school buildings will be safe for in-person learning.”

“The CDC has produced an informed, tactile plan that has the potential to help school communities around the country stay safe by defining the mitigation and accommodation measures, and other tools educators and kids need,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten added.

Emphasis on equity

The emphasis on equity in the 33-page handbook has also made experts on special education and district administration optimistic.

“Upon initial review, CASE is pleased to see that the CDC has added additional prevention measures, specifically testing, both diagnostic testing and screening testing and vaccination for teachers and staff as soon as supply allows,” said Phyllis Wolfram, executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education. “We are supportive of the focus on equity represented in the document specifically to historically underserved populations. We also noticed that students with disabilities are prioritized and appreciate the centering of their needs in the new guidance.”

Indeed, equity is also on the minds of superintendents.

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“All our superintendents have a focus on really looking at the pervasive learning loss that we know is happening,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at the AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Ng compared having official, detailed science-based guidance for reopening schools during a pandemic to placing a patch on a hole on a ship.

“You can’t patch [schools] with your normal operations,” she said. “You need expertise outside your normal, professional day-to-day goings on. You need outside expertise. That’s what this guidance is. This guidance is apolitical and de-weaponized. It filters [reopening] through a lens of best recommended practices. Through the filter of COVID-19 safety.”

Cara Nissman and Florence Simmons cover special education issues for LRP Publications.