According to Education Week, as of this week, five states have mandates requiring in-person instruction be available in all or some grades, either full or part-time. With more schools ramping up in-person learning, and President Joe Biden pledging to reopen the majority of elementary and middle schools by May, school districts are feeling the need to resume in-person education.
To address this issue of reopening schools safely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation,” on Friday to provide recommendations for reopening. The CDC states that schools are an important part of the infrastructure of the community and provide critical services to many students. With continued school closures and online learning, many students are either missing or have had interruptions in these essential services.
An article published by the CDC last month shared that mitigation strategies are working, and therefore schools that are already open have been able to do so safely without a huge super-spreader event of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The 33-page document released on Friday provides an operational strategy to support K-12 schools in opening for in-person education and remaining open. Essential elements include continued implementation of layered mitigation strategies to reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, community transmissions reflect the level of community risk, and phased mitigation and learning models that should be based on levels of community transmission.
Though, the CDC states that while teachers and school staff should be considered for high priority in the early phases of the vaccine distribution. “Access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction,” according to the report.
Despite previous comments from new CDC Director Rochelle Paula Walensky that vaccines are not necessary to reopen schools, the latest guidance suggests that vaccinating teachers, school staff and communities, as supplies allow, does provide an additional layer of COVID-19 prevention in schools, as does testing to identify individuals with the SARS-CoV-2 infection.
It also states that even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools should continue to use mitigation measures for the foreseeable future, as children under 16 are not yet approved for the vaccine. These strategies include masking and physical distancing. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ProPublica on Thursday that vaccines could be available for students as young as first-graders by September.
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For a successful school reopening, CDC recommends engaging the entire school community to establish a safe environment. It says that school reopening plans should include administration, teachers, students, parents as well as specialized instructional support personnel, including transportation.
Regardless of the level of community transmission, the CDC continues to say that mitigation strategies are critical. Five key mitigation strategies essential to the safe delivery of in-person instruction and help mitigate COVID-19 transmission in schools include:
- Universal and correct use of masks, with exceptions
- Physical distancing
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
- Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
- Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, and with collaboration of the health department.
“Schools should adopt the key mitigation strategies to the largest extent practical —a layered approach is essential,” the document states.
It also advises that viral testing strategies in partnership with schools should be part of a mitigation program. When used with mitigation strategies, the CDC said schools can detect new cases to prevent outbreaks, reduce the risk of further transmission and protect students, teachers, and staff from COVID-19.
The document states that testing should be offered on a voluntary basis, as its unethical and potentially illegal to test someone who does not want to be tested, including students whose parents or guardians do not want their child tested.