CDC says schools can be reopened without teacher vaccinations

The agency identifies five key “mitigation strategies” for officials to address when reopenign schools

Danielle Zoellner
New York
Sunday 14 February 2021 16:36
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Joe Biden says situation currently facing children is a ‘national emergency’

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s leading federal health agency, has announced it was possible for schools to transition to in-person learning without requiring for all teachers to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

In long-awaited guidance released on Friday, the agency said there was strong evidence that showed schools could resume in-person learning safely, specifically with the lower grades.

In-person learning should be contingent on community transmission rates, the CDC said, and be prioritised higher than reopening restaurants and nonessential businesses.

The agency identified five key “mitigation strategies” for officials to address when reopening schools: universal and correct mask-wearing; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and providing proper ventilation; and contact tracing, isolating, and quarantining any cases.

This guidance comes at a time when a national debate has erupted about how and when to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. Government officials were responsible for reopening individual districts, but some have faced pushback from teacher unions that claim the schools don’t have proper safety measures in place.

Vaccinations and testing was not a key requirement in the CDC guidance to reopen schools. Instead, the agency said these areas would “provide additional layers of Covid-19 prevention in schools”.

The CDC emphasised the guidelines should be followed strictly and consistently in all schools. Guidance altered slightly between elementary, middle, and high schools.

Also, the agency released a coded chart of what level of schooling should be open depending on community transmission rates.

“I want to be clear, with this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community,” CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing on Friday.

“We also know that some schools are already providing in-person instruction and we want them to be able to continue to do this, but we know that some are not following the recommended mitigation strategies we know to work,” Dr Walensky added.

“For these schools, we are not mandating that they close; rather, we are providing these recommendations and highlighting the science behind them to help schools create an environment that is safe for schools, students, teachers and staff.”

While each key strategy was deemed important by the CDC, Dr Walensky put emphasis on wearing a mask and practicing social distancing in schools.

“These two strategies are incredibly important in areas that have high community spread of Covid-19, which right now is the vast majority of communities in the United States,” Dr Walensky said. 

The CDC director also addressed the issue of vaccinations, as they were not listed as a key strategy to reopening schools.

“We strongly encourage states to prioritise teachers and other school staff to get vaccinated,” Dr Walensky said. “If we want our children to receive in-person instruction, we must ensure that teachers and school staff are healthy and protected from getting Covid-19 in places outside of schools where they might be at higher risk.”

President Joe Biden has put an emphasis on reopening schools as one aspect of his national coronavirus response plan.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that Mr Biden's hope was to open 50 per cent of schools for "some teaching" in person "at least one day a week" by the 100th day of his presidency.

"Hopefully it's more," Ms Psaki said. "And obviously it is as much as is safe in each school and local district."

Included in Mr Biden's plan was $130bn under his $1.9tn Covid-19 relief plan that would go directly to schools as they work to reopen safely. This money would go towards more educators to help class sizes remain small, properly ventilating and cleaning schools, and providing PPE equipment to schools. Funding could also provide assistance to students who fell behind during the pandemic.

"I think it's time for schools to reopen safely – safely," Mr Biden said when speaking to CBS News' Norah O'Donnell on Sunday. "You have to have fewer people in the classroom, you have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked."

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