The CDC and The U.S. Department of Education Issue New Reopening Guidance for K-12 Schools

Category: COVID Briefing
Date: Feb 12, 2021 07:26 PM

On February 12, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provided updated guidance titled K-12 Operational Strategies through Phased Mitigation, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Education, which issued a COVID-19 Handbook titled, Volume 1: Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools.

The COVID-19 Handbook issued by the U.S. Department of Education provides strategies, protocols and policies for schools when face masks are not warn properly, how physical distancing can be practiced, and strategies around pods, ways to lay out classrooms and use of school facilities for additional classroom space, reducing foot traffic with staggered start and end times and bell schedules, transportation considerations, symptom screening, safety considerations regarding extracurricular activities and recommendations for ongoing engagement with the school community.  The CDC stated during a briefing today that the U.S. Department of Education will be issuing further guidance on additional topics, including strategies on meeting the social and emotional health of students, supporting educator well-being, extended learning time, and bridging the digital divide.   

The CDC guidance stresses that it is grounded in science and research, which shows that, while students can get infected, become ill, and transmit the virus that causes COVID-19, the incidence of that happening is low.  If schools follow the mitigating measures in the CDC guidance, the CDC believes schools can open safely, especially in areas of low transmission.  However, the CDC is not mandating schools to open. Furthermore, the CDC is not mandating closure for schools that are currently open but not following the guidance.

The CDC briefing stated that the following five mitigation strategies are necessary for schools to reopen safely:

1. Universal and correct wearing of masks

2. Physical distancing

3. Handwashing and respiratory etiquette

4. Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, including ventilation improvements

5. Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine.

While each of these strategies is important, the CDC states that emphasis should be placed on the universal and correct wearing of masks and physical distancing.  The CDC also suggests using cohorts or pods as a means of increasing physical distancing.

Additionally, for schools in high transmission areas, the CDC states schools should place higher emphasis on physical distancing, hybrid learning programs and reduce sports, especially in the upper grades where cohorting is more difficult. The guidance states that in areas where there is substantial transmission of COVID-19, middle and high schools resuming instruction in person should open under a hybrid learning mode or reduced attendance, which physical distancing of 6 feet or more being required.  For areas where there is high transmission, the CDC states that middle and high schools should operate virtual only instruction unless they can strictly implement all mitigation strategies, and have few cases (noting schools that are already open for in person instruction can remain open if they strictly implement mitigation strategies and have few cases).  The CDC guidance recommends that sports and extracurricular activities be virtual only in areas of high transmission, and for areas of substantial transmission, that they take place outside only with 6 feet of physical distancing required.

In areas of higher transmission, the CDC encourages schools to layer further mitigation strategies, including weekly testing of students and teachers, increased ventilation and vaccination.  The CDC guidance includes recommendations on diagnostic testing when there has been COVID-19 exposure at a school as well as recommendations on the frequency of COVID-19 screening testing of employees and students based on the transmission rate in the community. 

The CDC guidance states that vaccinating teachers and school staff can be considered one layer of mitigation and protection for staff and students, but that access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction. The CDC guidance notes that even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools will need to continue mitigation measures for the foreseeable future, including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing.

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