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February 13, 2021

CDC releases new guidance to reopen schools and limit spread of COVID-19

It highlights five key strategies, including mandatory face mask-wearing and physical distancing

Prevention Schools
Schools Reopening CDC Austin Pacheco/via Unsplash

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance for schools to reopen as schools across the country grapple with how to get students back in the classroom.

Reopening schools has been a challenge across the country, leaving many school districts weighing the safety of in-person classes with the emotional impacts of virtual learning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance for reopening schools Friday that highlighted five main COVID-19 mitigation strategies. 

Those strategies were universal and correct mask-wearing, physical distancing, washing hands, cleaning facilities and contact tracing, isolation and quarantining.

COVID-19 vaccines were not named a "key strategy," but instead were considered "additional layers" of prevention, CNN reported.

These recommendations come after the Philadelphia School District released a plan to reopen some of its schools starting Feb. 22. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers objected to the plan, stating the district had not done enough to protect its teachers. 

The district is awaiting an independent arbitrator to determine if it's safe to come back to school. Mayor Jim Kenney said teachers could continue remote work until a decision is made. 

"I want to be clear, with 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," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing on Friday.

Walensky said while some schools are already open and providing in-person instruction, the CDC offers these guidelines to keep them open. 

"For these schools, we are not mandating that they close; rather we are providing these recommendations and highlighting the science behind them to help schools create an environment that is safe for schools, students, teachers and staff," Walensky said.

These recommendations are available for schools to use, but would not be requirements unless Congress and the Education Department took action to make this guidance official. 

The two most important strategies are wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, the CDC says. 

However, the risk of spreading the virus in a school is largely associated with how much it is spreading in the surrounding community.

To keep track of community spread, the CDC recommends schools use a color-coded chart to show level of transmission in the community. Blue would signify low transmission, yellow would determine moderate spread, orange is substantial and red for high transmission.

While these recommendations don't push for student and teacher vaccinations as a factor for reopening schools, the CDC is pushing for frontline essential workers, including teachers, to be prioritized for the vaccine.

In Philadelphia, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia agreed to take the lead on administering COVID-19 vaccines to school teachers, principals and staff starting late February. 

President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten called the recommendations "informed" and "rigorous."

"Of course, this set of safeguards should have been done 10 months ago—and the AFT released its plan recommending a suite of similar reopening measures in April. Instead, the previous administration meddled with the facts and stoked mass chaos and confusion. Now we have the chance for a rapid reset," Weingarten said in a written statement on Friday.

The CDC's guidelines were informed by research and data from the European Union and some schools in the United States that have reopened.

However, the agency said the recommendations will likely be updated and altered as more studies and research provides better insight on best practices, Annette Anderson, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and deputy director for the new Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told CNN Friday.

"This is not a one and done," Anderson said. "I think it's the beginning of a great rebound and response, but we have work to do and so we should focus on what we need to do between now and the reopening of schools in the fall so that we can have more consistency in strategy and planning, and measuring the outcomes."

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