CDC releases a road map for school reopening

Brittany Shepherd, Andrew Romano and Alexander Nazaryan
·5 min read

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday unveiled a detailed guide for phased reopenings of K-12 schools as part of the Biden administration’s bid to bring millions of children back into the classroom.

Many school districts across the country have been closed for nearly a year, leaving millions of children marooned in front of computer screens, even as evidence mounts that being away from school is intellectually and emotionally damaging to children and has been especially detrimental to communities of color.

Bitter fights over reopening in Chicago and San Francisco have become national news, and some Republicans have begun to accuse the Biden administration of refusing to follow the science and listening to the powerful teachers’ unions instead. Frustration over school closures has also taken hold in the suburbs, potentially representing troubling political developments should such closures persist.

A teacher instructs students at Freedom Preparatory Academy on February 10, 2021 in Provo, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)
A classroom at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Provo, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

“There’s more science to rely on,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on a call Friday afternoon with reporters to discuss the guidance, whose recommendations are broadly similar to those of the previous administration. Those measures include universal masking, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance and, where possible, ensuring robust ventilation.

The main benefit of the new guidance seems to be that it clearly tethers specific safety benchmarks to levels of viral spread within the community. Accompanying the color-coded guide is a 33-page “operational strategy” handbook that provides details on everything from mask wearing to class scheduling.

The guidelines presented by the CDC are divided into four color-coded “zones” based on the severity of coronavirus in the area. “Blue” zone schools are the least at risk, with low community spread, followed by “yellow” schools, with moderate transmission. Both blue and yellow zone schools will be permitted to reopen with full in-person learning that includes social distancing. More severe areas will be designated “red” zones and can either participate in constant testing of asymptomatic staff and students or decline that procedure, instead adopting hybrid learning or dimensioned attendance.

Schools that decline to routinely test students and staff are suggested to make their middle and high school learning virtual-only.

The new CDC guidelines will additionally encourage mitigation measures promoted by the White House over the past several weeks, which include social distancing, universal masking, proper handwashing, thorough cleaning and ventilation plans, quarantine pods and contact tracing.

Walensky, the CDC director, said there had been no “political meddling” of the kind that frequently marked the Trump administration’s efforts to get a handle on the pandemic. She said that while she’d shared some aspects of the new guidance with the White House, no one there had vetted the remarks she made on Friday afternoon, which leaned heavily in the direction of advocating that schools reopen.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control, speaks during a news conference at the Queen Theater December 08, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, then President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a news conference in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 8. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Biden administration has been able to extricate itself from the politics of pandemic-era education. Last week, Walensky said in an appearance on MSNBC that teachers did not need to be vaccinated before returning to in-person instruction, provided other measures were taken. That recommendation was effectively nullified by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who said Walensky had been speaking in her “personal capacity.” (MSNBC had plainly identified her as the CDC director.)

That led to charges of the very kind of political interference that Biden had decried during the presidential campaign.

The Biden administration has promised to open K-8 schools safely in its first 100 days but has not released its goals for high school reopening. It has also waffled on what exactly determines whether a school is open for in-person instruction.

Psaki said Tuesday that the president hopes most schools will be in-person “at least one day a week” by the end of April and “certainly hope to build on that” in the weeks ahead.

Reopening schools is shaping up to be one of the biggest challenges of Biden’s presidency. “Masking, vaccinations, opening schools,” he said in December. “These are the three key goals of my first 100 days.”

Study after study has shown that the classroom isn’t a major site of COVID spread when mitigation measures such as masking, ventilation, handwashing and social distancing are implemented. Communities where schools have reopened don’t suffer higher rates of infection than communities with shuttered schools. And younger students are far less likely to get COVID than teenagers and adults.

Yet despite the science, about one-third of America’s public schools continue to educate students remotely, and many of them are located in large urban districts where lower-income kids are at the highest risk of falling behind. Another third have only partially reopened for in-person instruction.

Lauren Choy, a sophomore at Boston Latin School, participates in her history class while sitting in her family's dining room in Jamaica Plain on Thursday afternoon. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Lauren Choy, a sophomore at Boston Latin School, participates in her history class while sitting in her family's dining room in Jamaica Plain, Mass. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The problem, experts agree, is that teachers need to feel safe before returning to the classroom — and teachers’ unions, which are particularly powerful in Democratic states and cities, are not giving much ground.

In California, where 6 million students remain in “distance” learning, union leaders have demanded that all teachers and staff get vaccinated prior to resuming in-person instruction — a demand that Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said could keep schools closed for the rest of the academic year. “If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth,” Newsom fumed. “There will be no in-person instruction in the state of California.”

The question is how much the federal government, which has no power to force schools to reopen, can do to accelerate reopening. During Friday’s press briefing, Psaki called the CDC’s announcement an “important next step” in the administration’s reopening plan.

“The president’s goal is to have schools open five days a week ... and to do it safely,” she said.

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