ATLANTA — New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recently released detailing mitigation strategies for K-12 schools to reopen safely.
While including many of the same measures previously backed by the CDC, the guidance emphasizes that the recommendations must be strictly and consistently implemented to keep schools safe.
Additionally, the guidance provides more detailed suggestions about what type of schooling should be offered given different levels of transmission, with differing advice for students in elementary, middle and high school cohorts.
According to the document, schools can reopen safely if there is strict enforcement of mitigation measures that include mask wearing, physical distancing, hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, as well as diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people from other students.
“We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask wearing,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said in a call with reporters.
The guidelines were released in the middle of a state and national debate over whether schools should remain closed or reopen at full capacity.
While teachers’ unions argue that the environment is unsafe to return to without vaccinations, the CDC guidance announced that while teachers “should be vaccinated as quickly as possible, teachers do not need to be vaccinated before schools can reopen.”
Although the guidance says vaccinating teachers should not be seen as a condition to reopen, Walensky said it can provide “an additional layer of protection.”
Last month, West Virginia Board of Education members voted to mandate that all counties provide in-person instruction to students in elementary and middle school at least two days each week regardless of the county color-coded metric for community transmission.
During the state Board of Education meeting last Wednesday, two waivers were requested by Monongalia and Berkeley County schools to allow less in-person attendance due to high rates of community transmission. Those were denied on the basis that “health officials have repeatedly said in-school transmission is not affected by community transmission.”
“We are seeing our community transmission rates decrease, and our students are currently in schools. It seems that our students are safer when they are in school rather than when they are not,” said State Department of Education General Counsel Heather Hutchins.
Upon returning to in-person instruction, the West Virginia Department of Education’s revised guidance incorporates updated practices supported by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, state health leaders and the CDC.
“Children need to return to in-person instruction, and when mitigations are implemented and enforced, it is safe for them to do so,” said Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch.
According to the WVDE school recovery mitigations and protocols, heightened transmission rates experienced in communities are not reflected in the schools. Therefore, in-person instruction will be implemented on a consistent basis across the state with mitigations in place.
The key mitigation strategies identified by the WVDE include consistent and correct use of masks, hand hygiene and coughing/sneezing etiquette, social distancing to the largest extent possible, elimination of large gatherings outside classrooms and core groups, cleaning and disinfection, and contact tracing in collaboration with local health departments.
At this time, 35 counties in West Virginia are utilizing a blended format for in-person instruction while the remaining counties utilize four- or five-day in-person models.
CDC officials emphasized that in-person learning has not been identified as a substantial driver of coronavirus spread in U.S. communities, and that transmission among students is now considered relatively rare.
The CDC also stressed that the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible, and it urged local officials to assess whether a severe outbreak is occurring in a community when making decisions about students’ return to school.
The guidance included a color-coded chart that goes from blue to red when assessing community spread, including rates of new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests.
According to the CDC, even when students live in communities with high transmission rates, elementary students could receive at least some in-person instruction safely.
The document suggests that if school mitigation measures are followed strictly, the risk of spread within schools should be low, and when things get risky, elementary students can attend using a hybrid model, but that middle and high school students may attend virtually.
However, middle and high school students could attend school safely at most lower levels of community transmission, or at higher levels if schools put into effect weekly testing of staff and students to identify asymptomatic infections, the CDC said.
“CDC’s operational strategy is grounded in science and the best available evidence,” Walensky said.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued a statement following the release of the new guidelines for reopening school noting “the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence.”
“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,” she said. “The CDC has produced an informed, tactile plan that has the potential to help school communities around the country stay safe by defining the mitigation and accommodation measures, and other tools educators and kids need, so classrooms can once again be vibrant places of learning and engagement.”
“It reinforces vaccine priority for teachers and school staff. Crucially, it emphasizes accommodations for educators with pre-existing conditions and those taking care of others at risk.”