Editor's note: This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
Highly anticipated new guidance from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says schools don’t need to wait for staff to be vaccinated to reopen. Students should return full-time where spread is low or moderate, and with regular testing, schools can open for some in-person instruction even when community spread is high, the guidance says.
Masks and other safety measures remain critical, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education said Friday, and schools should consider hybrid schedules or stay virtual if spread is high and widespread testing isn’t possible.
“It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services,” the CDC’s guidance says.
The guidance offers a high-profile boost to those pushing schools to quickly reopen or stay open, including some governors, school officials, and frustrated parents. Recent estimates suggest that about a third of U.S. students lack access to at least some in-person schooling, and the Biden administration has staked its goal of reopening more schools in part on new, robust guidelines.
Still, it’s not clear how much of a tangible effect the new document will have. School reopening decisions are made at the state and local levels, and many districts already have plans to bring more students back over the next month or two. Widespread testing may remain out of reach, financially and logistically, for many districts. And in hard-hit places where school officials and educators share safety concerns and parent demand for in-person school is lower, CDC guidance may hold little sway.
Another piece of uncertainty: the more-contagious variants of COVID that have shuttered schools in many countries and are now circulating in the U.S. If those variants cause cases to spike, the CDC warns, “updates to this guidance may be necessary.”
What the guidance says
In places where schools have not reopened, some teachers unions have pushed to wait until staff are fully vaccinated. The CDC says that’s not necessary, but encourages states to prioritize vaccine access for teachers.
“Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure,” the CDC guidance says, and officials should consider giving “high priority” to those staffers once health care workers and others in the most-vulnerable category have been vaccinated.
The guidance does offer a framework for deciding how and whether to open school buildings. In places with low or moderate community spread, the CDC recommends elementary, middle, and high schools be open full-time. In places with “substantial” spread, schools should open to students part-time.
In places where community transmission is highest, schools that regularly test students and staff should open part-time. If that kind of surveillance testing is not in place, elementary school buildings can remain open part-time, but middle and high schools should remain virtual.
Frequent testing is a costly endeavor, and it’s not clear how many districts have the capacity to quickly stand up such an initiative.
Across the country, many schools are already open with a hybrid schedule. Students come to school only a few times a week in alternate groups in part to maintain physical distances of at least six feet and minimize crowding in common spaces.
The new guidance continues to broadly recommend those six-foot distances, which may encourage schools to stick with those part-time schedules. But the CDC also says that in areas where community spread is low or moderate, less than six feet of distance is OK. The six-foot standard is only required in areas with substantial or high community spread.
The CDC acknowledged that some schools that are currently open are not following all of its safety recommendations.
Will the guidance make a difference?
The guidance comes amid a pitched national debate over school reopening, and puts the Biden administration in tension with some teachers unions, key political allies. In California, most public school buildings are closed, and the unions in a number of large districts don’t want them to open until teachers are vaccinated.
“Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.”
Weingarten has said she supports the push to get more schools open, but she’s also backed local unions who have raised specific concerns about their districts’ reopening plans. She joined Philadelphia teachers, for instance, when they protested about ventilation this week and refused a request to return to school buildings.
Notably, though, polls have shown that much of the public is sympathetic to unions’ position. A January poll found that a majority of parents want schools to focus their effort on improving remote instruction.
Complicating matters further: Many parents are also reluctant to send their children back to school buildings. In some places that have reopened schools, only a small share of students have returned. Families of color are particularly wary of returning, and schools serving students of color have been less likely to offer in-person instruction.
Reopening has also become highly political, with Democratic areas much less likely to open buildings. And while many school officials have long hoped for clearer guidance from the federal government, particularly in the wake of reports that the CDC had been politicized under the Trump administration, the new information comes long after officials have to come to rely on other sources.
“Lack of national leadership trickles down and creates problems,” one superintendent explained on a national survey.
What could increase the influence of the guidance: Virus cases are declining across the country, and more schools are already opening or have plans to do so. The fact that the new guidance comes from the Biden administration may bolster its credibility with some school officials.
“Superintendents can’t necessarily pay attention when the CDC is weaponized and politicized,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng of AASA, the national school superintendents association. “This new guidance is the type of leadership that our school leaders have needed.”
At the core of the CDC’s guidance is the point that COVID spread in schools is low, but the harm caused by keeping buildings closed is high.
Parents whose children are learning in person five days a week are more satisfied with their education. The share of high school students failing courses has jumped substantially. Standardized tests show students falling behind. A recent study in Ohio found that the share of third graders who scored proficient on a reading exam dropped from 45% last year to 37% this year.
For instance, one much-publicized CDC study of 17 rural Wisconsin schools found that only a handful of students and no teachers were known to have contracted the virus in school. Another national study found that reopening school buildings didn’t increase the community’s COVID hospitalization rates, at least when community spread was low to moderate.
Another Wisconsin study released by the CDC shows a substantial share of cases from COVID outbreaks last fall were linked to day care facilities and K-12 schools.