ATLANTA, Ga. — The nation’s top public health agency has released a roadmap for reopening schools in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the long-awaited update Friday.
It emphasizes mask wearing, social distancing, and other actions, and adds that vaccination of teachers is important, but not a prerequisite for reopening.
The CDC says it won't force schools to reopen, and agency officials were careful to say they are not calling for a mandate that all U.S. schools be reopened.
"I want to be clear: with the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed road map for how to do so safely under different level of disease in the community," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
But the CDC said there is strong evidence now that in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels, and the guidance is targeted at schools that teach kindergarten up to 12th grade.
Schools in Florida have already been open for face-to-face learning, with virtual learning as an available option to students.
ABC Action News spoke to Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi ahead of the guidance briefing on what she believes is needed for teachers to feel safe in the classroom during the pandemic if schools were fully opened in Florida.
“For the teachers, obviously they would need vaccinations. Vaccinations would be the move that would make them most comfortable, if most people were able to be vaccinated,” said Velardi.
Velardi explained the school district helped make COVID-19 vaccines available to Pinellas County School employees 65 years and up, but she says they do have a group of people who are vulnerable with certain health conditions.
“They have comorbidities that make it a little more dangerous for them to be in a face-to-face classroom, so they would definitely need to be vaccinated before they would be expected to be in that situation,” said Velardi.
Mitigation strategies essential for K-12 instruction
Regardless of the level of community transmission, the CDC says all schools should use and layer mitigation strategies.
The CDC says schools providing in-person instruction should prioritize mask wearing and social distancing.
For masking, the agency says schools should require all students, teachers, and staff to consistently and correctly use face coverings. For space, officials say at least 6 feet of physical distancing should be maximized to the greatest extent possible and the use of pods is recommended to minimize exposure across the school environment.
When it comes to what is considered a "safe reopening of schools," the CDC Director said they're finding there's more spread happening in the community when schools are not open than when they are open. Walensky also said they're managing other risks when schools are closed, like food insecurity and missing educational milestones.
"Really what we're trying to do is make sure that there is limited to no transmission in the schools, and we believe with the strategies we have put forward that there will be limited to no transmission in the schools if they are followed.”
The CDC created a color-coded chart that shows the recommended strategies and learning modes by the level of community transmission.
The spread of variants also came up during Friday's briefing, as the medical community watches COVID-19 variant cases across the country closely.
“If we get to a point where we are beyond the red zone here, really high levels of community spread related to the variants or related to just more transmission, we may need to revisit this again,” said Walensky.
Vaccination of teachers
In its guidance, the CDC says state and local officials should consider giving high priority to teachers in early phases of vaccine distribution.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that front-line essential workers, including those who work in the education sector, should be prioritized for vaccine allocation in phase 1b, following health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities.
However, officials say access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.
“In terms of ... vaccination, its one of those layers of mitigation that we believe will help, but we believe and the science has demonstrated that schools can be reopened safely prior to all teachers being vaccinated," said Walensky.
Even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, the CDC says schools need to continue mitigation measures for the foreseeable future.
When schools implement testing combined with mitigation strategies, the CDC says they can detect new cases to prevent outbreaks, reduce the risk of further transmission, and protect students and staff from COVID-19.
The CDC suggests two different kinds of testing – diagnostic and screening.
For the former, the CDC says schools should offer referrals to diagnostic testing to anyone who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19. The agency also says schools should give referrals to teachers, staff, and students who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Some schools may also elect to use screening testing as a strategy to identify cases and prevent secondary transmission. The CDC says screening testing is intended to identify infected individuals without symptoms (or prior to development of symptoms) who may be contagious so that measures can be taken to prevent further transmission.