News Analysis Feb 13, 2021 1:38 PM EST

New CDC guidelines says kids can safely return to school but fail to urge in-person learning

They recommend that schools can be open safely no matter what the level of COVID transmission in the broader community, and that teacher vaccination is not a prerequisite for schools to be open.

New CDC guidelines says kids can safely return to school but fail to urge in-person learning
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY
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The CDC has released new guidelines for how to get schools open. In short, they recommend that schools can be open safely no matter what the level of COVID transmission in the broader community, and that teacher vaccination is not a prerequisite for schools to be open. Many say that these guidelines do not go far enough to get schools open. Unions say the opposite.

Elementary schools can be open no matter what the level of community COVID transmission is, so long as they engage in face masks, social distancing, and take active hygiene measures.

Middle and high schools can be open except where community COVID transmission high, meaning a 10 percent positive COVID test rate over a period of seven days, or where there are 100 cases for every 100,000 people over the same period of time. The CDC recommends weekly testing of students and staff for these grade levels, and that school attendance reduction, where kids alternate who learns in class and who learns remotely.

Many say that the CDC did not go far enough in getting school open, kids back to class, and teachers back to work. And the CDC did not have answers for what the effect on a generation will be of a year without schooling. The science on that is yet to be released.

This includes the senior author of study a study on Wisconsin schools, which was published by the CDC, who believes that these guidelines are still too restrictive.

Others believe that the guidelines are already compromised, designed to offer slim guidance while appeasing union leader and still letting them take the lead in when schools should open.

Union leaders are not so sure that the CDC's guidelines do enough, but for opposite reasons, and despite the Biden administration's insistence that they will trust the CDC's science-based guidance.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that "...we look forward to seeing and hearing the CDC guidelines to gain a better understanding of what steps that will entail or should entail. The president's role of course is to ensure that across government we are listening to those guidelines, we are leaning into science, we are letting the science and medical experts lead."

But according to The New York Times, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said that she thought there should be more emphasis on testing in schools. The National Education Association's Becky Pringle had concerns about the CDC's lack of guidance on air quality in schools, as well as that the CDC didn't demand six feet of social distancing. Neither Weingarten nor Pringle are science or medical experts.

While these guidelines are for all schools, there are many areas in the country where schools have already been open for some time. Even in areas where public schools are closed, like Chicago or Los Angeles, or operating at limited capacity, like in New York, private schools have been open and making their own decisions as to how to do so safely.

The conflict between the unions, which were big donors and supporters of Joe Biden and who he has advocated for continuously during his lengthy career in federal government, and scientists, medicals experts, parents, and some teachers who say kids need to be in school and the science backs that up.

In Chicago schools, closed since March, opened in advance of the CDC's issued guidelines, and students went back to school on Thursday. The Chicago Teachers Union advocated for building overhauls to address old HVAC systems, and issued a demand that all teachers be vaccinated before going back to work.

Philadelphia's teachers union has made similar demands, but they will be back in session towards the end of February. San Francisco has faced similar battles, with the school board there more involved in undertaking the pricey process of changing school names to appeal to those who think Abraham Lincoln was racist than in getting schools reopened.

None of the schools in the nation's largest schools districts are either fully open or have plans in place to be fully open. New York, the country's largest, has had in-person learning since September 21, but that has not included middle or high-schoolers, and each school district in the city, of which there are dozens, has worked out their own plans, with city guidance. Elementary students may be in class up to three days per week if conditions hold, but none of the public schoolers are in school five days per week.

The Biden administration came into office on a promise to get schools open within 100 days, but the definition of open has continued to change. While many believed that open meant fully open, with kids back in class five days per week, the administration noted this week that open may mean as little as 1 day per week.

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