CDC paves the way for more in-person school
Education | The agency says it is safe for students to come back, with some qualifications
by Esther Eaton
Posted 2/17/21, 02:40 pm
In Vancouver, Wash., 13-year-old Melanie Gabriel’s school has been online since the coronavirus pandemic began. Her district promises middle school students can return to classrooms in March but has broken similar promises before.
“It is soul-crushing,” Gabriel said. “It’s like bringing a 5 year old to Disneyland and then turning around when you get there.”
During remote school, students are failing more classes and report worsening mental health. As of Sunday, around 33 percent of U.S. K-12 students were still completely online, according to Burbio. A Nevada school district switched to in-person school after seeing 19 student suicides since last March. But a recent announcement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested the end is in sight. The agency released safety guidelines last week saying schools should reopen, though the decision to return fully to in-person classes rests with states and school districts. The CDC’s practical tips, and especially the finding that schools don’t need to wait for vaccines, may encourage more districts to get students back in classrooms.
The 35-page guidance document underlines the importance of familiar safety measures like social distancing, handwashing, cleaning, and contact tracing. The guidance recommends staggering bell schedules and lunch breaks to keep students in smaller groups. It especially highlights the importance of properly worn masks. “We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask-wearing,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a call with reporters.
The document defines four levels of safety restrictions depending on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the surrounding community. But the agency allows for the possibility of some kind of in-person instruction with strict rules at even the highest level, in areas with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week. Some critics point out this restrictive category includes most of the country, and some schools have reopened safely even with high community transmission.
The CDC guidance also declares COVID-19 shots nonessential for reopening. Teachers unions in Chicago, Sacramento, and elsewhere have demanded vaccine access before returning to class. The Los Angeles union reiterated that demand on Friday. The guidance does urge officials to prioritize teachers for immunization.
The Los Angeles teachers union also blasted the CDC’s report for skimming over building ventilation, which can lower the risk of transmission through airborne particles. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated last year that about a third of public-school buildings need maintenance updates, including to their ventilation systems. But the CDC only briefly mentioned ventilation, recommending schools open windows and doors to increase airflow if it won’t increase the risk of falling or asthma attacks.
But many experts and even some union leaders support the recommendations. A New York Times survey of 175 pediatric disease specialists found most agreed with the CDC that it’s possible to reopen schools safely before vaccinating teachers, even in communities with high COVID-19 rates. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.”
In Washington, Gabriel’s county is in the CDC’s highest transmission tier, so under the new guidance, her school would stay online or only partly open. For her, in-person classes can’t begin soon enough.
“A lot of my teachers think because I turn in my assignments and I do good, I’m perfectly fine, but that’s not true,” she said. “You log on at the same time every day, the same schedule, just to see a bunch of black screens. It’s so tiring and draining and lonely.”
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