CDC pushes for school reopening amid concerns over Delta variant

·National Correspondent
·13 min read

WASHINGTON — The new guidance on schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reiterates what many parents, children and elected leaders have been saying since school closures turned from a passing precaution to a new normal.

“Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority,” the new guidance issued on Friday reads, in effect also repeating what the agency had been saying for much of the second half of 2020.

A first grade student at the Green Mountain School waits to leave class at the end of the day on February 18, 2021 in Woodland, Washington. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
A first-grade student at the Green Mountain School on Feb. 18 in Woodland, Wash. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

The new guidance comes as worries persist about what the Delta variant of the coronavirus could do to the 2021-22 school year. Few want it to look like the year that concluded for American children last month. Surveys this past spring found that remote learning took a heavy psychological toll on parents and students alike. Teachers also reported higher rates of burnout.

Attempting to head off some of those worries, the CDC guidance comes out strongly in favor of in-person instruction, while reminding that prevention measures — masking, social distancing — keep teachers and students safe. Notably, the new guidance says that in-person learning should continue “regardless of whether all of the prevention strategies can be implemented at the school.”

Advocates of reopening schools for in-person instruction welcome the new guidance, even as they point to flaws that could lead to problems. “I very much like the focus on opening schools and the idea of flexibility for what is possible locally,” says Emily Oster, a Brown University economist who emerged last year as a lightning-rod figure in the school reopening wars. She told Yahoo News that her only “significant concern” was the “lack of guidance/flexibility” on quarantining of positive cases.

According to the new guidance, people who are not fully vaccinated need to quarantine “after a recent exposure to someone with COVID-19.” Since students in elementary schools cannot yet be vaccinated, that could cause significant disruption. And positive cases are bound to emerge, especially as the highly transmissible Delta variant becomes ever more dominant in the United States. In addition, the broad availability of diagnostic tests, including rapid assays that yield results in just 15 minutes, could lead to more positive cases — and more disruptions. 

People arrive for the new FDA emergency use and authorized IgG ll Antibody Test for vaccinated people, offered free of charge in Santa Fe Springs, California, on April 21, 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
A COVID-19 antibody testing site in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., on April 21. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The CDC urges vaccination for all members of a school community, including children 12 or older. Younger children are not yet eligible for the vaccine; in their case, the CDC recommends masking.

“This is better than I expected from the CDC but still has problems,” says Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner and professor of emergency medicine at the George Washington University. “The biggest problem is this: It’s great that they are requiring masks indoors for unvaccinated people, but if there is no proof of vaccination, how will administrators know if a teacher or student is vaccinated?”

Many states have dropped mask mandates in schools, and a few have explicitly forbidden schools from implementing mask mandates again. And though vaccination among teachers and school staff approached 80 percent months ago, vaccination rates among adolescents remain relatively low, especially among non-white populations.

“It’s really disconcerting not knowing how worried we should be about our kids, both under 12, going back to school in a month,” Phoenix-based data scientist Justin Kiggins recently tweeted, “when the governor has banned mandatory masks in schools and the Delta variant is rising quickly.”

Arizona is one of eight states where governors have said that school districts are not allowed to impose mask mandates, according to data website Burbio, which tracks how the pandemic has affected education. That could deprive those districts of a key mitigation strategy in case infections begin to rise. What’s more, some of those eight states — Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina — have low vaccination rates.

Sonia Lorenzana, of UnidosUS, sets up an informational tent to increase efforts to bring more vaccine doses into Latino neighborhoods at a local shopping plaza Friday, May 7, 2021, in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)
Sonia Lorenzana, of UnidosUS, sets up an informational tent to increase efforts to bring more vaccine doses into Latino neighborhoods on May 7 in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Teachers’ unions, which were widely viewed last year as resistant to in-person instruction, have made masking a top priority, especially in schools where students aren’t vaccinated. “We share the growing concern over the Delta variant, as well as the evolving science around COVID transmission in young people,” said Randi Weingarten, leader of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers, in a statement.

Her statement also said that the new guidance “is grounded in both science and common sense.”

The CDC has made several revisions to its guidance, under both President Biden and, before him, President Donald Trump, with the consistent goal of reopening schools as widely as possible. In that sense, Friday’s guidance is, more than anything, a forceful restatement of priorities, one intended to bolster the push to reopen, especially as worries grow over the Delta variant and parents wonder if recent history is about to repeat itself.

“The Delta variant threatens another school year. That can’t happen,” went the headline of an op-ed in the Week by columnist Damon Linker. Linker wrote that watching British schools grapple with the Delta variant “fills me with dread.”

Last summer, most school districts made plans to reopen in September 2020 for in-person instruction. Remote instruction had been an unwelcome necessity during the height of the coronavirus in March, but now the pandemic was nearly over, which meant school could resume.

Teacher Elizabeth DeSantis, wearing a mask and face shield, helps a first grader during reading class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Teacher Elizabeth DeSantis, wearing a mask and face shield, helps a first grader at Stark Elementary School in September 2020 in Stamford, Conn. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It didn’t work out that way. A second wave of the pandemic ripped across much of the country, and 62 percent of American children began their school year where they had ended the one before: at home, on Zoom.

Now, parents who spent much of last year clashing with educators and politicians over school reopenings worry that the Delta variant could scuttle their tenuous hopes for a normal school year.

“I’m very concerned that teachers’ unions are going to use every opportunity and any excuse to shut down schools in the fall,” says Rory Cooper, a political consultant in Fairfax County, Va., who became a pro-reopening advocate after watching his own three children attend Zoom school for months on end.

Cooper told Yahoo News that he believed teachers’ unions would use the new, more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus as a “scare tactic” to revert to remote instruction come September. “After the Delta variant it will be something else,” he predicts.

Many teachers found remote instruction as unsatisfying as did parents, and spent much of last year yearning to return to the classroom. The powerful labor unions that represent them say they were only trying to push for sufficient safety measures, so that schools did not become coronavirus hot spots (they never did). And even before the issuance of the new CDC guidance, they had been voicing a commitment to in-person instruction for the school year about to begin.

“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school,” said Weingarten, the AFT president, back in May. “And my union is all in.” 

Sierra Vista High students recite the Pledge of Allegiance as they return to in-class instruction for the first time in more than a year. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Sierra Vista High students recite the Pledge of Allegiance as they return to in-class instruction for the first time in more than a year. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Her union has spent $5 million on a campaign to convince parents to return their children to the classroom, though it was union rhetoric such as teacher “die-in” protests that may have scared them away from sending their children back to school in the first place. Some parents also do say they favor remote instruction, though most states are either phasing out virtual schooling or sharply limiting its use to families with medical exemptions.

The Delta variant presents a troubling new development in a pandemic that has gone on longer than most observers had predicted.

Advocates for in-person instruction, like Cooper, are already preparing for a fight, so that they aren’t blindsided — as they were last year, when remote learning persisted well into the spring. The school year finished with 28.2 percent of American students in partially remote instruction, attending school for one or two days a week, if not less. Another 2.1 percent remained fully remote, not having seen the inside of a classroom since May 2020.

Ironically, worries about whether schools will reopen for in-person instruction are coming from parts of the country where vaccination rates are highest, and where community transmission of the coronavirus has been effectively halted. Those are the same mostly Democratic states that kept schools closed for longest — and could close them again.

Democrats are closely allied with unions like the AFT. And whereas conservatives have tended to underestimate the risk of the coronavirus, studies have shown, progressives have sometimes overestimated it.

An anti-mask protestor holds up a sign in front of the Ohio Statehouse during a right-wing protest
An anti-mask protester in front of the Ohio Statehouse in July 2020 in Columbus. (Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)

“Yes, I am very worried,” says Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco who has argued persistently in favor of reopening schools. A recent op-ed Gandhi co-authored argued that “Delta variant panic” could lead to a needless return of lockdowns and school closures.

On Thursday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky revealed that in recent months, 99.5 percent of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths were among unvaccinated individuals. All versions of the coronavirus vaccine protect against severe or critical illness, including Delta.

But national case rates are rising, and could rise even more in the fall, even if any outbreaks are highly localized and don’t lead to a rise in hospitalizations and deaths. “I am worried that an increase in case rates could derail reopening when it shouldn’t,” Washington, D.C., pediatrician Dr. Lucy McBride told Yahoo News.

Advocates of reopening argue that an overreaction to the Delta variant would only be an all-too-accurate reprise of what happened last year, when opposition from teachers kept schools closed even as study after study showed that schooling was safe.

Few educators have as much influence in shaping the risk calculations of teachers and politicians as Weingarten, the AFT head and a close ally of President Biden. Both her union and the National Education Association (with 3 million members, among them first lady Jill Biden, a college professor) are thought to have shaped the CDC’s cautious guidelines for reopening schools this past spring. Top officials at both unions were hired to be top officials at the federal Department of Education.

Students prepare to enter James Madison High School on March 22, 2021 in the Madison neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Students prepare to enter James Madison High School on March 22 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Late last month, Weingarten wrote on Twitter that the Delta variant “is particularly contagious in young people,” only to be swiftly criticized for misrepresenting a scientific study and stoking fear. Weingarten followed three days later with a tweet about how the “dangerous” Delta variant was “changing the landscape of the pandemic.”

A top aide to Weingarten insisted that those messages were not intended to be opinions on reopening for in-person instruction. He has pointed to her repeated calls for a return to in-person schooling.

Critics of the unions say that is merely double-talk.

“I don’t find them especially credible. They spent last year doing everything they could to give the impression that school reopening was nonessential — a nicety that could lag reopening of bars, restaurants, and more,” said education reformer Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute in an email to Yahoo News. “I find their talking points unconvincing, at best, and insincere, at worst.”

Within a matter of weeks, school districts will announce their final plans for the 2021-22 school year. Guidance from the CDC and pressure from teachers unions’ could shape those decisions. So could parent advocacy, as well as worries about political backlash.

“Delta variant hasn’t affected announced school learning plans as of yet,” says Dennis Roche, president of Burbio. “Areas to watch would be districts and states that were heavily virtual or hybrid last year,” where remote learning would be a ready fallback.

A pedestrian walks past a Covid-19 vaccination centre set up at the Masjid e Saliheen mosque in Blackburn, north west England on June 16, 2021. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign for a COVID-19 vaccination center set up at the Masjid e Saliheen mosque in Blackburn, England, on June 16. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

The challenges of reopening schools in the face of a more transmissible coronavirus strain have been evident in the United Kingdom, where the Delta variant arrived earlier, overlapping with the 2020-21 academic year, which lasts well into the summer there. Cases rose in schools despite the U.K.’s high vaccination rate. “We are hearing from our members that more and more schools are having to close multiple classes or ‘bubbles,’” a British teachers’ union leader said in June, “particularly in areas with higher case numbers, and revert to remote learning.”

Delta has caused elevated infection rates among British children. “If I were a parent in the UK, I would keep my children home for the immediate future,” Australian epidemiologist Zoë Hyde tweeted. “This is unsafe.”

What is and isn’t unsafe, in particular when it comes to children, is at the very heart of the debate. Children can get the coronavirus but don’t tend to die from it. Child mortality actually fell in 2020.

Teachers make risk assessments of their own, in particular if they work in crowded classrooms inside aging buildings. Before they were emptied by the pandemic, American schools had fallen into unseemly disrepair. State and local leaders have spent millions to make upgrades that would make learning safe again.

Educators are not necessarily convinced. Some feel the fixes have been rushed, a way to get them into the classroom, whether it’s actually safe to be there or not. “It’s an airborne disease,” a Chicago Teachers Union representative told Yahoo News. “Come on.”

Lucy Baldwin, a teacher at King Elementary School, sits in an empty classroom teaching her students remotely during the first day of classes on September 08, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Lucy Baldwin, a teacher at King Elementary School, teaches her students remotely during the first day of classes in September 2020 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In apparent recognition of that very fact, the Chicago public schools invested $8.5 million in new air filtration systems. Now the union wants additional enhancements, so that every classroom either has its ventilation upgraded or has sufficient filtration to have its air fully recycled every 10 minutes.

Delta is an argument in favor of those upgrades, the unions say.

Last week, both Bidens spoke at the NEA’s annual meeting, which was in good part occupied with social justice issues. For his part, President Biden praised teachers for their “heroic work,” saying little of the uncertainties and recrimination a year of remote learning left behind — or of the challenges that lie in the year ahead.

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