New CDC guidelines emphasize schools reopening in the fall

Updated: Jul. 24, 2020 at 1:24 PM EDT
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(CBS News/WBTV) - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest guidelines heavily emphasize sending students back to school this fall, despite what the CDC described as "mixed evidence about whether returning to school results in increased transmission or outbreaks" of COVID-19. The new guidelines arrived the same day the U.S. surpassed 4 million coronavirus cases.

CDC Director Robert Redfield tweeted about the new policy, telling parents that “school closures have disrupted normal ways of life for you and your children and they have had negative health consequences on our youth.”

“It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall,” he added. “CDC resources will help parents, teachers and administrators make practical, safety-focused decisions as this school year begins.”

One of the CDC's primary arguments for reopening schools this fall is that K-12 students are "less likely" to get coronavirus than adults.

"Parents are understandably concerned about the safety of their children at school in the wake of COVID-19," the new guidance says. "...The best available evidence indicates that COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children. Children appear to be at lower risk for contracting COVID-19 compared to adults."

The latest data on the CDC website shows that while children between the ages of 5 and 17 are less likely to die from coronavirus, infections in that age group make up roughly 5.3% of all coronavirus cases in the U.S. Black, Hispanic and Latino children make up nearly 72% of cases in that age group.

The CDC also said schools should examine rates of community transmission before deciding to reopen. The agency looked at evidence from schools around the world and found that while re-opening may be safe in communities where there are low transmission rates, European computer simulations have shown that reopening schools "may further increase transmission risk in communities where transmission is already high."

Despite these risks, President Trump has threatened to withhold funding from schools that don't open this fall. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said earlier this month that limiting days in the classroom "would fail America's students and it would fail taxpayers who pay high taxes for their education."

To help combat the spread of the virus within schools, the CDC recommended that they adopt face mask and social distancing policies. Alternative options may be considered when students are sitting at least six feet apart, are at recess or a physical education class, are in band, choir or music class, have severe breathing problems or are deaf or hard of hearing.

The guidance is unclear on how effective those steps would be, as the CDC also said that “more research and evaluation is needed.”

Parents are encouraged to monitor children for symptoms, the CDC said, and it's not recommending that schools conduct universal symptom checks.

The CDC ultimately suggested that if schools remain closed, the risks for students contracting and spreading coronavirus are low, while the risks for students suffering academically and health-wise are high. It noted that schools offer vital resources, including food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to students. Many of these programs primarily aid low-income, minority or disabled students.

“The harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant,” the CDC said. “Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school.”

The CDC posted resources for parents, schools and staff to follow if they want to have a safe return to in-person instruction at schools.

The CDC offered a School Decision-Making Tool for parents, caregivers and guardians. There is also a checklist for back-to-school planning for parents.

Preparing K-12 school administrators for a safe return to school in fall 2020 (According to the CDC)

The CDC’s guidance is intended to aid school administrators as they consider how to protect the health, safety, and wellbeing of students, teachers, other school staff, their families, and communities and prepare for educating students this fall.

This guidance is for K-12 school administrators who are preparing for students, teachers, and staff to return to school in fall 2020. School administrators are individuals who oversee the daily operations of K-12 schools, and may include school district superintendents, school principals, and assistant principals.

The CDC says that it is critical that all administrators (According to the CDC):

  • Engage and encourage everyone in the school and the community to practice preventive behaviors. These are the most important actions that will support schools’ safe reopening and will help them stay open.
  • Implement multiple SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies (e.g., social distancing, cloth face coverings, hand hygiene, and use of cohorting).
  • Communicate, educate, and reinforce appropriate hygiene and social distancing practices in ways that are developmentally appropriate for students, teachers, and staff.
  • Integrate SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies into co-curricular and extracurricular activities (e.g., limiting or canceling participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible).
  • Maintain healthy environments (e.g., cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces).
  • Make decisions that take into account the level of community transmission.
  • Repurpose unused or underutilized school (or community) spaces to increase classroom space and facilitate social distancing, including outside spaces, where feasible;
  • Develop a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
  • Develop a plan with state and local health department to conduct case tracing in the event of a positive case.
  • Educate parents and caregivers on the importance of monitoring for and responding to the symptoms of COVID-19 at home.
  • Develop ongoing channels of communication with state and local health departments to stay updated on COVID-19 transmission and response in your local area.

The guidance described in this document is based on the best available evidence at this time. This guidance is meant to supplement—not replace—any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply.

Key considerations for school administrators: (According to the CDC)

  • COVID-19 transmission rates in the immediate community and in the communities in which students, teachers, and staff live
  • Approaches to cohorting that fit the needs of your school/district and community (e.g., keeping students in class pods, staggering when students return to school facility, having the same teacher stay with the same group of students)
  • Can unused or underutilized school spaces, including outdoor spaces, be repurposed to increase classroom space and facilitate social distancing?
  • Concurrently implementing multiple strategies in school to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (e.g., social distancing, cloth face coverings, hand hygiene, and use of cohorting)
  • Best practices for your school and community to communicate, educate, and reinforce personal protective behaviors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in school and in the community
  • Integrating strategies to reduce COVID-19 transmission into co-curricular and extracurricular activities (e.g., limiting participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible)
  • Planning and preparing for when someone gets sick
  • Working with state and local health authorities to develop a plan to conduct contact tracing in the event of a positive case
  • Communicating appropriately to families about home-based symptom screening

How can K-12 schools prepare for going back to in-person instruction? (According to the CDC)

Expect cases of COVID-19 in communities. International experiences have demonstrated that even when a school carefully coordinates, plans, and prepares, cases may still occur within the community and schools. Expecting and planning for the occurrence of cases of COVID-19 in communities can help everyone be prepared for when a case or multiple cases are identified.

  • Coordinate, plan, and prepare. Administrators should coordinate with local public health officials to stay informed about the status of COVID-19 transmission in their community. Additionally, planning and preparing are essential steps administrators can take to safely reopen schools:
  • CDC’s Considerations for Schools provides detailed recommendations for schools to plan and prepare to reduce the spread of COVID-19, establish healthy environments and maintain healthy operations. This guidance includes information about implementation of mitigation strategies, such as physical distancing within buses, classrooms and other areas of the school, healthy hygiene habits, cleaning and disinfection, use of cloth face coverings, staggering student schedules, and planning for staff and teacher absences (e.g., back-up staffing plans).
  • One important strategy that administrators can consider is cohorting (or “pods”), where a group of students (and sometimes teachers) stay together throughout the school day to minimize exposure for students, teachers, and staff across the school environment. At the elementary school level, it may be easier to keep the same class together for most of the school day. In middle and high school settings, cohorting of students and teachers may be more challenging. However, strategies such as creating block schedules or keeping students separated by grade can help to keep smaller groups of students together and limit mixing. Strategies that keep smaller groups of students together can also help limit the impact of COVID-19 cases when they do occur in a school. If a student, teacher, or staff member tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, those in the same cohort/group should also be tested and remain at home until receiving a negative test result or quarantine. This helps prevent a disruption to the rest of the school and community by limiting the exposure. Schools should have systems in place to support continuity or learning for students who need to stay home for either isolation or quarantine. This includes access to online learning, school meals, and other services. The same holds for students with additional needs, including children with a disability, that makes it difficult to adhere to mitigation strategies.

For more information on the CDC’s in-person school guidance, visit its website.