CDC defends school guidelines as advocates say they make it too hard to reopen

But the much-anticipated guidelines released Friday were, in fact, more measured than some expected, with full in-person schooling recommended only when levels of community transmission are quite low, a standard that almost no place in the U.S. meets today.

Under the rubric laid out, the CDC recommends either fully remote or hybrid plans, where students spend some time in school and some at home, for areas with substantial community spread. Even though case counts are falling, the definition of substantial spread today includes the vast majority of the country.

While pandemic school closures have been challenging for many children, special-needs students like McKenzie West are falling further behind. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

When communities are in the “red” zone, the CDC suggests school districts offer hybrid classes for elementary school to reduce the number of students in each room. Middle and high schools could offer this sort of hybrid learning, too, but only if they implemented other stringent rules, as well.

If all schools adhered to the CDC guidelines, many that are fully open now would close for in-person learning or need to ratchet back to a hybrid system.

Advocates for reopening schools were dismayed.

The guidelines add “new and unnecessary demands that will ultimately keep millions of kids out of school,” public health experts Joseph G. Allen and Helen Jenkins said in The Washington Post. They said they had once favored tying school reopening to metrics for community spread. “We changed our position on this in light of overwhelming scientific evidence that transmission within schools can be kept low regardless of community spread, so long as good mitigation measures are in place.”

Some parents were also disappointed.

“Parents had grown progressively nervous that this was going to be a politically influenced outcome and that’s what it feels like we landed at,” said Karen Vaites, a mother who lives in New York City and is part of a group advocating for open schools.

She said mitigation strategies such as mandatory masks, which the CDC said were essential, make sense, but she views the requirement for six feet between students when rates are high to be too strict, and argued the CDC’s metrics for reopening are too conservative.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky defended the agency’s approach on Sunday.

“We know that the amount of disease in the community is completely reflected as to what’s happening in school. If there’s more disease in the community, there will be more in school,” she said on CNN. “So, I would say this is everybody’s responsibility to do their part in the community to get disease rates down, so we can get our schools opened.”

Greta Massetti, lead author on the CDC guidance document, noted in an interview that even at high levels of community transmission, there are in-person — albeit hybrid — options for all K-12 schools. To use a hybrid model, middle and high schools are either required to implement all mitigation strategies and keep case counts low, or required to do in-school screening tests for students and staff without symptoms.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Walensky described the guidance as a road map for reopening schools, some of which have been shuttered completely for nearly a year.

“We are really anticipating that with this guidance emerging, that schools will be able to start opening,” she said.

Some elements of the guidance will certainly help speed reopening. It says vaccination of teachers is a strategy for reopening, but not a requirement. It also put almost no emphasis on improving ventilation systems, an expensive proposition that has led to contentious negotiations between some school systems and their teachers.

But overall, the CDC plan was welcomed by teachers’ unions as well as some public health experts as far superior to the guidelines put forward under the Trump administration.

“The CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence,” said a statement Friday from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “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.”

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