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 cannot 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.
But they 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.
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.
The CDC created a color-coded chart that shows the recommended strategies and learning modes by the level of community transmission.
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 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.
And, 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.