If faculties comply with CDC tips, Biden’s reopening objectives could also be troublesome to realize
Updated at 2:43 p.m. ET
President Biden has said several times that he would like most schools to be open by his 100th day in office, April 30th. On Friday, February 12th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines designed to help schools work safely in person. However, some argue that these guidelines do the opposite and, if strictly followed, would actually force schools to close.
“Parents wake up call! If schools strictly follow these new guidelines, children will no longer return to full-time education,” Joseph Allen, Harvard director of healthy buildings and ventilation expert, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. Maybe not even until next fall, he said.
Instead of pouring oil on troubled waters, the government’s guidelines and public statements appear to have poured an energy drink over an already intense debate – one where the relationship between school operations, COVID-19 levels, and politics is anything but simple or uniform .
Some of the confusion comes straight from the administration. At a CNN town hall on Tuesday, Biden repeated, making it clear that he was talking about grades K-8, saying, “The goal will be five days a week.” This contradicted recent statements by his spokeswoman Jen Psaki that the goal was only one day a week without giving K-8.
Another step backwards came in early February when CDC director Rochelle Walensky said vaccinating teachers was not a requirement for schools to reopen safely. Psaki later said Walensky spoke “in her personal capacity”. However, the new official CDC guidelines are in line with Walensky’s statement: “Access to vaccinations should not be viewed as a requirement for schools to reopen for personal instruction.”
The official guidelines and statements of the White House encounter complicated facts on the ground as well.
These new guidelines – which are meant to be recommendations – will emerge almost a year after the pandemic. During this time, school districts have made their own decisions about reopening with limited federal funding. About two-thirds of US students will have the opportunity to study in person on February 14th. This is one of the few organizations that has been tracking the reopening of schools throughout the pandemic, according to Burbio. Burbio reports that 40.8% of students have the option of traditional face-to-face teaching five days a week, while the rest have the option of a hybrid curriculum.
The number of schools teaching face-to-face has increased since last fall – long before the CDC issued its latest data-driven guidelines – and that number is currently at an all-time high, according to Burbio. Texas, Florida, and Georgia are three large states with mostly open K-12 schools. There are also many open schools in the middle of the country, in states like Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, and Arkansas.
In many places, however, these schools currently open are not necessarily in line with new CDC guidelines on issues such as community diffusion, physical distancing, or athletics.
Spread in community
Cases have declined across the country, CDC’s Rochelle Walensky noted at a White House briefing Friday. Still, Burbio calculates that by February 14, approximately 91% of students will be enrolled in schools located in areas that fall in the CDC’s “red” category with the highest COVID-19 transmission rates.
Given the many cases in the community, CDC guidelines call for hybrid learning in elementary schools. and only virtual learning in middle and high schools, unless these schools can “strictly implement all mitigation strategies” and have “few” cases. Conclusion: As long as the number of cases does not drop further, most schools cannot be open five days a week and still adhere to the CDC guidelines.
The CDC guidelines recommend a physical distance of 6 feet. This is the reason for hybrid timetables – they are supposed to reduce the class size and leave room for maneuver in classrooms. However, distancing is less achievable for the estimated 40% of students who have the opportunity to teach in person five days a week.
Heidi Matthews is a teacher and president of the Utah Education Association. She says that in her state, full-time in-person learning is the norm and the class size is large.
“We can’t keep our desks 6 inches apart, much less social distance,” Matthews told NPR.
Bottom line: Without a huge cash inflow for more space and staff, a distance of 6 feet five days a week may not be achievable.
In “red” zones, where 91% of US students now live again, CDC guidelines require all sports to be virtual. In high-contact sports like wrestling, masks can be dangerous and distancing is impossible. However, there are places across the country, like Pittsburgh and the Detroit area, where schools are closed but children’s sports – either school leagues or independent sports – are in full swing. The Twitter hashtag #LetThemPlay is tracking efforts across the country to keep youth sport going or to reopen it.
An evolving situation
The environment for school openings could improve before Biden’s first 100 days are up. If the spread in the community continues to decline rapidly, more schools may be able to open or in a few cases continue to work and even offer more days in person. Vaccination of teachers, which is inconsistent across states, can be helpful if staff shortages persist, as the CDC says that vaccinated individuals no longer need to be quarantined after exposure and the peace of mind associated with the vaccine may bring more teachers back to the labor force.
But advocates of justice like Becky Pringle, head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, warn that schools that serve more vulnerable students in low-income communities may be less able to afford what the CDC is now recommending. This could contradict the official scientific guidelines with the message of the president.
In short, when it comes to practices like physical distancing, quarantine, contact tracing, coronavirus testing, and ventilation, the CDC has provided guidance, but there is no guarantee that schools and communities will or can follow their rules.
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