POST 129. February 15, 2021, CORONAVIRUS. “ “The CDC released its much-anticipated, updated guidance to help school leaders decide how to safely bring students back into classrooms, or keep them there.”…” For politicians, parents and school leaders looking for a clear green light to reopen schools, this is not it.”

…Rather than a political push to reopen schools, the update is a measured, data-driven effort to expand on old recommendations and advise school leaders on how to “layer” the most effective safety precautions: masking, physical distancing, hand-washing and respiratory etiquette, ventilation and building cleaning, and contact tracing.

“CDC is not mandating that schools reopen,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday on a phone briefing with reporters.

Instead, the CDC goes to great lengths to explain that proper mitigation can help keep kids and staff safe at school, even in hard-hit communities, though it also warns that schools lulled into a false sense of security because of low community transmission rates could still spread the virus if they don’t enforce mask-wearing and socially distanced classrooms…

Becky Pringle, head of the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, also warned that schools that serve more vulnerable students in low-income communities are less able to afford other key protections the CDC recommends.

“Many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students, have severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs,” Pringle said in a statement. “State and local leaders cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow and which students get resources to keep them safe. And too many schools do not have in place the basic protections that the CDC has said are universally required.”… (A)

“The release of the 35-page CDC report comes as many public schools – more than half, according to some estimations – have already reopened, while others, particularly in cities, remain closed. The CDC acknowledged that many of the schools operating in-person are doing so safely.

“Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,” the report says.

The report says “vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction” but advises communities to consider giving teachers “high priority” in vaccine distribution.

Walensky said teacher vaccinations can be an “additional layer of protection” but made clear it isn’t a necessity. “The science has demonstrated that schools can reopen safely prior to all teachers being vaccinated,” she said. Earlier this month, Walensky said teacher vaccinations were not a “prerequisite.”

The CDC advises 6 feet of physical distancing “to the greatest extent possible.” That’s a more cautious recommendation than 3 feet of separation advised by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

To promote social distancing, the CDC recommends strategies such as breaking students into smaller cohorts or pods; staggering schedules; installing physical barriers, particularly in tight spaces like reception areas; and limiting school visitors.

In-person school attendance “is not a primary driver of community transmission,” according to the CDC. And while children can be infected and get sick from COVID-19, “evidence indicates that children are less susceptible than adults, and may be less infectious.”

“What we are finding from the science-based literature,” Walensky said, “is that there is more spread that is happening in the community when schools are not open than when schools are open.”…

For the first time, the CDC’s guidelines define levels of low, moderate, substantial and high coronavirus transmission and suggest what instructional models schools should use for the risk.

The criteria are based on the total number of new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days days and the percentage of positive tests during the past seven days.

The CDC unveiled a color-coded chart detailing the four levels of transmission risk.

Anything below 50 new cases per 100,000 people and below an 8% positivity rate is considered moderate or low transmission. Full in-person learning across all grade levels is recommended when these thresholds are met.

Fifty or more new cases per 100,000 people and 8% or above is considered substantial or high transmission under the guidelines. Schools are advised to use hybrid instruction models that include virtual classrooms at that threshold….

Although the CDC welcomes schools screening students and staff for the virus, officials stopped short of including the practice in the guidelines. If school districts do take that step, teachers should be given higher screening priority over children because adults are more susceptible to disease.” (B)

“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, the CDC says schools should consider hybrid schedules or stay virtual if spread is high and widespread testing isn’t possible. Under the CDC’s definition, about 90% of the country qualifies as an area with high community spread, and testing programs are expensive, which means it may be logistically challenging for districts to fully open their middle and high schools and comply with CDC guidance.

Ultimately, state and local officials will decide how much weight to give the CDC’s recommendations. Many districts already have plans to bring more students back over the next month or two; in other places where school officials and educators share safety concerns and parent demand for in-person school is lower, the guidance may hold little sway….

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.

“The safest way to reopen schools is to ensure that there is as little disease as possible in the community,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said…

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, called the guidance a “good first step,” but argued that schools often lack the resources to follow the CDC’s guidelines. “Many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students, have severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs,” she said in a statement. “State and local leaders cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow and which students get resources to keep them safe.”…

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.” (C)

“Notably, the CDC guidance states that the document is meant to assist state and local school district officials in making decisions rather than establishing regulatory requirements.

“Recommendations are based on CDC’s current knowledge of COVID-19,” the guidance states. “Each [community] should decide the most appropriate indicators to reference when deciding to open, close, or reopen schools.”

According to an early analysis from Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and one of the country’s leading public health experts, 20 states fall into the “highest risk” category and 28 states fall into the “higher risk” category. Only two fall into the “moderate risk” category and one into the “low risk” category.

Jha also analyzed the data at the county-level, finding that 56% of counties fall into the “highest risk” category and 31% fall into the “higher risk” category.

Overall, his analysis shows, 40% of people live in counties considered “highest risk” by the new CDC guidance and 48% live in counties considered “higher risk.” Only 11% and 1%, respectively, live in counties considered “moderate risk” and “lower risk.”

“These are super sobering numbers,” Jha said. “It’ll be very hard to reopen schools in many places across the nation.”

Jha said he agreed with the CDC that schools in counties considered “higher risk” or close to “moderate risk,” could attempt to reopen, but only if they have mitigation strategies in place.

“Red counties will struggle no matter what they do,” he said. “It’s a reminder that we had all spring and summer to get our schools ready. And we largely didn’t.”

With a lack of guidance from state and federal governments, gutted school budgets that leave little to spare for protective gear, sanitization efforts and testing, and a virus that public health experts are still learning about and issuing new warnings for, the majority of school districts are utilizing at least some type of remote learning, including the country’s big city school districts, which almost uniformly opted for an all virtual model…

The new CDC criteria, Jha said, shows “how much of America has not done the job” to open schools safely.

“And by that failure,” he says, “we are letting our kids down.” (D)

“Absent from the agency’s guidance were detailed recommendations on improving ventilation in schools, an important safeguard.

In one short paragraph, the C.D.C. suggested that schools open windows and doors to increase circulation but said they should not be opened “if doing so poses a safety risk or a health risk.”

“C.D.C. gives lip service to ventilation in its report, and you have to search to find it,” said Joseph Allen, an expert on building safety at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “It’s not as prominent as it should be.”…

But Ms. Pringle of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, said there should be no wiggle room on physical distancing or other mitigation strategies.

The nation’s most powerful teachers’ union president wants to get students back in classrooms. But many educators are resisting.

“We need detailed guidance from the C.D.C. that doesn’t leave room for political games,” she said. “This is an airborne disease. Masks must be mandated, social distancing must be in place and proper ventilation is a must.”…

The new guidance recommended that states immunize teachers in early phases of the rollout but said access to vaccines should “nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”

Vaccinating teachers is very effective at reducing cases among both teachers and students in a model of transmission in high schools, said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It should be an absolute priority,” he said.

Still, he added, “I can certainly see why they chose not to make it a prerequisite, because it may not be something that can be done in time to have schools open.”

Some teachers’ unions have also asked for stringent protections regarding air quality inside school buildings, an issue not fully addressed by the C.D.C.

In Boston, for example, air quality was a major point of contention in reopening negotiations between the school district and teachers’ union. Their agreement called for air purifiers in classrooms and a system for testing and reporting air quality data.

Ms. Pringle, the union president, said her members continued to be concerned about aging schools that did not have modern ventilation systems. Those buildings were more likely to be in lower-income and nonwhite communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

On Friday, Dr. Walensky said while the new guidelines should enable schools to stay open through most local conditions, if transmission skyrockets — perhaps because of the contagious new variants beginning to circulate in the country — “we may need to revisit this again.” “ (E)

“President Joe Biden has made reopening the nation’s schools for in-person instruction one of his top priorities. He pledged in December to resume in-person instruction at a majority of the nation’s schools in his first 100 days after taking office, but Biden did not define what it meant for a school to “reopen.”

In January, he specified that the goal applied only to schools that teach students up to eighth grade. And earlier this week, the White House further clarified that schools will be considered open so long as they teach in person at least one day a week. Psaki said Wednesday the goal is part of the White House’s “bold ambitious agenda,” adding that it’s a floor the administration hopes to exceed.

“His goal that he set is to have the majority of schools, so more than 50%, open by day 100 of his presidency,” she said. “And that means some teaching in classrooms. So, at least one day a week. Hopefully, it’s more.”

In-person schooling came to an abrupt halt across the country in March as schools shifted to remote learning to protect students, teachers and parents from the coronavirus. But education experts and public health groups, including the World Health Organization, have warned of the lasting consequences of keeping students out of the classroom. Economists, too, have cautioned of the impact on working parents, especially mothers, who have become unemployed in record numbers during the pandemic.

Former President Donald Trump urged governors and local officials to reopen schools for in-person learning, saying in July that keeping schools closed will probably cause “more death.” But under his administration, the CDC offered little guidance on how and when to reopen safely, saying instead that the decision should be made by local and state officials…

In lieu of clear federal direction thus far, state, local and school officials have all charted their own course on how and when to reopen schools. Data from Burbio, a service that tracks school opening plans, recently reported that almost 65% of K-12 students are already learning in person to some degree.” (F)

“New York’s push to become the first big school district in the country to reopen classrooms last fall was a high-stakes and risky experiment. It has had its share of miscommunication, logistical stumbles and disruptions — especially when classrooms and school buildings are frequently closed because of virus cases…

The city requires schools to shutter for up to 10 days if two unrelated positive cases are confirmed in a building. Individual classrooms close when one or more positive cases are detected.

The number of closed classrooms and schools has risen considerably over the last few weeks, as test positivity rates across the city have remained high and weekly in-school testing has increased.

Between Jan. 4 and Wednesday, 580 of 1,052 open school buildings closed for up to two weeks. Fewer than 400 school buildings have not had a closing of any kind in the new year…

The rule was developed at a moment when it was unclear whether Mayor Bill de Blasio had the political support to reopen schools, and when there was much less evidence that schools could reopen safely. The protocol was part of a package of safety measures, agreed on with union leaders over the summer, that allowed New York City to open its schools in the first place.

Mr. de Blasio said earlier this month that he would “re-evaluate” the two-case rule, though city officials said it was highly unlikely that safety measures would change before the reopening of middle schools.” (G)


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