New guidelines on school reopening issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday prioritize a return to in-person learning above nearly all other social and civic functions.
The updated document is part of US President Joe Biden’s pledge to return the majority of elementary and middle schools to in-person learning in his first 100 days in office and outlines the safety measures necessary to mitigate COVID-19 spread, which it says is proven to be lower among young children than teenagers or adults.
“K–12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” the CDC wrote. “Schools should be prioritized for reopening and remaining open for in-person instruction over nonessential businesses and activities.”
According to the document, this can be accomplished by shedding extracurricular activities and maintaining safety measures, such as universal mask-wearing and social distancing of six feet between persons. It also recommends that students are placed in groups called “cohorts” or “pods” while at school, to minimize their exposure to a wide group of people. However, vaccination "should not be considered a condition" of reopening, it says.
The document also notes that research suggests that children younger than high school age - 13 or 14 years old and younger - are less likely to catch or spread COVID-19 and are also the ones most likely to suffer from at-home learning. It advises that remote learning be reserved for high schoolers, but makes no firm recommendations, noting that each district must decide its own course based on the extent of community spread of COVID-19.
Families with people to whom potential exposure to COVID-19 would pose an extreme risk should be given the option of remote learning regardless of what the rest of the school district is doing, the CDC further advised.
However, some of the guidelines remain vague, including on one of the most politically contentious subjects: ventilation.
“Improve ventilation to the extent possible such as by opening windows and doors to increase circulation of outdoor air to increase the delivery of clean air and dilute potential contaminants,” it says. “Opening windows and doors should be consistent with school safety protocols and safety plans. Do not open windows and doors if doing so poses a safety risk or a health risk (e.g., risk of falling, triggering asthma symptoms) to anyone using the facility. Opening windows and doors should be consistent with school safety protocols and safety plans.”
As Sputnik has reported, many teachers across the US have gone on strike against being forced back into in-person teaching in schools with inadequate ventilation, including a lack of updated filters, ducts, and air pumps. One of the CDC’s own studies published last month showed that in schools where air is simply recycled instead of replaced, it increases COVID-19 spread.
For many places in the US, opening windows or doors is simply not possible due to weather extremes: at present, a “polar vortex” has pushed frigid air from Siberia down across much of the country, plunging temperatures in Chicago down to just 18 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday and a forecast to fall below zero in the coming days. As far south as Houston, Texas, temperatures rose to just 39 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday, and an icy low of 13 is predicted on Monday.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Friday the agency’s operational strategy is “grounded in science and the best available evidence.”
Last summer, the CDC did an about-face on its previously-stringent school safety advice under intense political pressure from the Trump administration, which said it wanted to quickly return tens of millions of parents to work by sending their children back to school in the fall 2020 semester. Internal administration emails obtained by Politico in December 2020 revealed how the CDC was strongarmed into emulating guidelines issued by the Trump-appointee and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and changing the title of a September report on COVID-19 spread and mortality among children and youth in order to conceal its content amid the push to reopen.
Thanks to renewed social lockdowns in communities across the US, the colossal spike in COVID-19 cases that began in November 2020 has begun to fall, although on Friday the seven-day moving average for daily new cases was still 100,937, according to CDC data. However, the death rate remains high: in all, 473,699 Americans have died from the virus, with 3,589 dying just on Thursday.