CDC releases new guidance for US schools to reopen, laying out details on masks, distancing, and vaccinations

Transitional kindergartner Caleb Simon, 4, waits with fellow students outside Weaver Elementary School on the first day of in-person learning in Rossmoor, CA, on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. The Los Alamitos Unified School District is the first public school to return to classrooms in Orange County. Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
  • The CDC issued new guidelines on Friday on how to safely reopen schools amid the pandemic.
  • The agency is not requiring schools reopen.
  • CDC said proper mask wearing and distancing are the most important factors to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
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The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released new guidance for schools to follow as they reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The “layered mitigation” strategy leans heavily on five key recommendations that, together, will create a safe environment to bring students back to classrooms, CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said Friday.

The guidelines include:

  1. the universal and correct use of masks;
  2. physical distancing of at least 6 feet;
  3. handwashing and respiratory etiquette;
  4. cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities; and
  5. contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine.

The CDC is not mandating that schools reopen, but asking that those that do follow their guidelines.

“The safest way to open schools is to make sure there is as little disease as possible in the community,” Walensky told reporters Friday. “Enabling schools to open, and remain open, is a shared responsibility.”

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The CDC is recommending that schools prioritise proper mask wearing and social distancing as they decide to reopen.

While getting educators and staff vaccinated is among the layered precautions that will mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, data show that schools can safely reopen without 100% vaccination as long as they follow the other guidelines.

The limited data collected by the Department of Education shows that around 60% of US schools have opened to some form of in-person learning, most of it hybrid, Walensky said.

CDC guidelines on sick students
The CDC released guidance on how to handle transmissions in the school community. Provided by the CDC

In regions with a high transmission rate, mask wearing and physical distancing is especially important and should be required if schools intend on reopening, the CDC advised.

If implementing the guidelines is not possible, then middle and high schools in areas that currently have a high rate of transmission should continue virtual learning. Elementary schools in these areas can safely offer a hybrid model of learning, the CDC says.

CDC reopen schools
Middle and high schools in the highest zones of COVID-19 transmission should remain closed unless they can implement all of the guidelines, CDC says. Provided by the CDC.

Walensky noted during the press conference that the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is higher during periods when schools are closed. Fully virtual learning also brings on other challenges, including social isolation, food insecurity, and missed education milestones, said Donna Harris-Aikens, DOE senior advisor for policy and planning.

While children can be infected with COVID-19, fewer than 10% of COVID-19 cases involve children between the ages of 5 and 17, Walensky said.

When there are COVID-19 clusters among school communities, staff-to-staff transmission is more common, she said, and most transmissions are the result of improper mask wearing.

“In-person learning has not been associated with substantial COVID-19 transmission,” she said.

Walensky said the Department of Education and CDC have not taken guidelines around sending students back to school lightly.

As research continues, and if the rate of transmission changes due to new variants of the virus, the agencies might need to update their guidelines, the CDC said.

For every parent demanding that their child’s school reopens, there is another who is fearful of sending them back, Walensky said.

“To the parents out there, and as a parent myself, I understand that this might be one of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make since the pandemic began,” she said.