CDC: Strong evidence in-person schooling can be done safely

Detroit News staff and wire reports

The nation’s top public health agency said Friday that in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other strategies, and vaccination of teachers, while important, is not a prerequisite for reopening.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its long-awaited road map for getting students back to classrooms in the middle of a pandemic that has killed nearly 480,000 people in the U.S. But the agency’s guidance is just that — it cannot force schools to reopen, and CDC officials were careful to say they are not calling for a mandate that all U.S. schools be reopened.

Fifth-graders practice social distancing in their classroom on the first day of classes at Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield, August 27, 2020.

Officials said there is strong evidence now that schools can reopen, especially at lower grade levels.

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Recommended measures include hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people from others in a school. It’s also more emphatic than past guidance on the need to wear masks in school.

“We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask-wearing,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, in a call with reporters.

Gerald Hill, superintendent of the 5,600-student West Bloomfield Public School District, reviewed the guidelines on Friday and said they are consistent with recommendations from the state's health department and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Hill said they are what the Oakland County district has been doing since August, when it opened for hybrid learning in grades K-8.

That means face masks for students and staff, physical distancing when possible, ventilation upgrades and following mitigation strategies when cleaning, Hill said.

While the new federal guidelines say schools should be open for face-to-face learning, Hill said districts like his who are operating part-time hybrid models, with two sets of student cohorts, need clarification. Hill said he does not have enough physical space in his district to social distance and have 100% of students back every day.

"When the leap goes from hybrid to full face-to-face and therein lies the problem: you still have to physical distance and you can't (split up) groups," Hill said. "We are still struggling with how to do that (full-time) and still follow the guidelines."

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, said he has questions after reviewing the CDC guidance.

“Safety protocols remain important," he said. "Spread in schools is low, but without attention to safety protocols and mitigation strategies, that could change. Testing remains problematic — who pays, how often? If schools are a priority, then vaccines need to be accessible to teachers and staff.”

Michigan educators also say now is the time to release federal COVID-19 funding for schools that is being held back by Michigan lawmakers. 

The Michigan House last week approved $3.5 billion in supplemental spending that holds back some federal COVID-19 funding, and links $2.1 billion in education funding to Whitmer ceding her administration's authority to close schools or stop sports to local health officials. 

Need more money

The guidance was issued as President Joe Biden faces increasing pressure to deliver on his promise to get the majority of K-8 schools back to in-person teaching by the end of his first 100 days in office. He acknowledged that the goal was ambitious, but added, “It is also a goal we can meet if we follow the science.”

In this Dec. 7, 2020, file photo, students enter P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold Elementary School in New York.

Biden said schools will need more money to meet the CDC’s standards and called on Congress to pass his COVID-19 package quickly to get $130 billion in aid to schools.

“We have sacrificed so much in the last year,” Biden said in a statement. “But science tells us that if we support our children, educators and communities with the resources they need, we can get kids back to school safely in more parts of the country sooner.”

Officials at Michigan's largest teachers' union deferred comment on the announcement to National Education Association president Becky Pringle. On Friday, Pringle said leaders must make the investments to keep educators and students safe and cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow and which students get resources to keep them safe.

"Schools should be the safest place in any community," she said. "Now that we have clearer CDC guidance, state and local decision-makers need to be able to look educators, students and parents in the eyes and ensure that with full confidence." 

Pringle said CDC standards still aren’t being met in many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor White students, and those with severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs.

Peter Spadafore, deputy executive director at the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, said his association had not yet reviewed the guidance.

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the national School Superintendents Association, said in a statement it is likely safer for schools to be more open than they currently are, so long as appropriate mitigation strategies are in place.  

"And to the extent that today’s sets of guidance address both of those realities — that schools can open and to do so requires mitigation strategies — it represents a strong step forward in helping more students return to the classroom," Domenech said. "We reiterate our call for additional federal funding to support the work of reopening, covering costs spanning from testing and ventilation to PPE and social distancing."

'Stronger language'

The new guidance includes many of the same measures previously backed by the CDC, but it suggests them more forcefully. It emphasizes that all of the recommendations must be implemented strictly and consistently to keep school safe. It also provides more detailed suggestions about what type of schooling should be offered given different levels of virus transmission, with differing advice for elementary, middle and high schools.

Asked how the guidance differed from that offered by the Trump administration, Walensky said, “We’ve used stronger languages than prior guidance. We’ve been much more prescriptive here as to putting some guardrails on what can and should be done to get to a safe reopening.”

“And I can assure you that this is free from political meddling,” she added.

In this Feb. 2, 2021, file photo, students wear masks as they work in a fourth-grade classroom, at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash.

There’s wide agreement that learning in the classroom is more effective and that students can face isolation and learning setbacks at home. But teachers unions in some areas say schools have failed to make buildings safe enough to return.

The new guidance was embraced by both sides of the debate, with each saying it bolstered their position. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said it’s further evidence that schools are equipped to reopen now.

In this Aug. 3, 2020, file photo, Paul Adamus, 7, waits at the bus stop for the first day of school in Dallas, Ga.

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 the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible. The agency urged local officials to assess whether a bad outbreak is occurring in a community when making decisions about sending adults and children into schools.

The guidance included a color-coded chart, from blue to red, on assessing community spread, including rates of new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests.

That said, high community transmission does not necessarily mean schools cannot be open — especially those at the elementary level. If school mitigation measures are strictly followed, the risk of spread in the schools should still be low, the guidance suggests.

The document suggests that when things get risky, elementary schools can go hybrid, providing in-person instruction at least on some days, but that middle and high schools might go virtual.

“The older children get … the more they act like adults in terms of transmission and disease,” Walensky explained. “So when we are in areas of high transmission, we have pushed more for elementary school hybrid learning.

Competing interests

Government officials estimate that about 60% of K-12 schools right now have some form of in-person learning going on, though in many cases it may be part-time.

Schools also can tighten up restrictions for the in-person learning that is going on. For example, the CDC continues to recommend that children be spaced 6 feet apart in school settings. But it should be required when there’s a worrisome surge of new infections in the community, said Greta Massetti, a CDC official who led much of the work on the new guidance.

Biden has been caught between competing interests as he works to get students in the classroom without spurning the powerful teachers unions that helped get him elected. Critics say he has bowed to unions instead of taking more aggressive action on reopening.

Unlike former President Donald Trump, who pressured schools to open and blasted the CDC for issuing guidance that he said was impractical, Biden has kept his distance from the CDC as it works on recommendations. Even after the CDC’s director recently said that vaccinations are not a prerequisite for reopening, the White House declined to take a firm stance on the question.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that “no one on our senior staff” had seen the CDC guidelines ahead of their release. “I can assure you that the White House is not directing the CDC.”

Biden’s national strategy says the administration “will also work with states and local school districts to support screening testing in schools, including working with states to ensure an adequate supply of test kits.”

But the CDC guidance stops short of recommending testing, saying “Some schools may also elect to use screening testing as a strategy to identify cases and prevent secondary transmission.”

In the early days of the U.S. epidemic, some health experts worried that schools might become cauldrons of coronavirus infection, with kids infecting each other and then spreading it to family members — as seems to be the case during cold and flu season.

Detroit News Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers and Associated Press writers Collin Binkley and Mike Stobbe contributed.