Reopening schools has become a subject of heated debate as America continues its efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic. In early February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a long-awaited roadmap detailing how schools should reopen safely. It’s reassured many educators, but has also left others worried if the recommendations are enough to keep students safe. This article will serve as a basic overview of what the guidance covers, what many health experts feel it does not sufficiently address, and what the guidelines mean for Alameda County schools.
What’s in the plan?
The guidelines provided by the CDC are all intended as recommendations for schools, and do not require teachers to get vaccinated beforehand. New York Times education experts Dana Goldstein and Kate Taylor wrote that the strategies attempt to “carve a middle path” between those who want schools to reopen soon and those who remain hesitant to return to classrooms in-person before extensive vaccinations.
The CDC’s operational strategy centers around three critical elements, the first of which is to follow certain mitigation strategies in order to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 within the classroom. The CDC recommends that schools prioritize following physical distancingguidelines “to the greatest extent possible,” as well as ensuring that all students, teachers, and staff wear masksproperly. Additionally, the department is urging appropriate handwashing and the consistent cleaningand maintaining of healthy facilities in all schools. The department also would like schools to use its contact tracing resourcesand have staff and students quarantine at home when appropriate.
The second component of the CDC’s plan is that school administrators and public health officials work together to assess the level of risk within their county by using two measures provided by the department: the rates of new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive COVID tests over the past 7 days.
The third and final element of the guidelines emphasizes the different learning modes that schools should implement according to each institution’s situation and the resources available. Whether a certain school is remote, follows hybrid learning, or becomes fully open should be determined based on a few key factors. Administrators can decide from a color-coded chart what form of learning is safest based on the overall level of transmission risk in their community.
In addition, the CDC commends that if possible, schools implement diagnostic and screening testing in tandem with the essential mitigation strategies in order to prevent further outbreaks. Vaccinating teachers and staff as soon as supply allows would also be beneficial, though this should not be considered as a prerequisite for schools to reopen.
Do educators and experts support these guidelines?
The guidelines, though significantly more detailed in comparison to the Trump administration’s plans, have elicited mixed reactions.
Among the positive: the President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten stated that “the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence.”
On the other hand, many health and education experts believe that the roadmap does not adequately address the gaps in resources between institutions.
“Many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students, have severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs,” stated Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “State and local leaders cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow and which students get resources to keep them safe.”
The CDC’s key mitigation measures, which do not include vaccinations, require extensive funding. The National Education Association said that the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan is needed for schools to have the safety tools to follow the recommended health measures.
In the Bay Area, some health experts believe that the CDC guidance is filled with exceptions and is based on flawed assumptions about how COVID-19 spreads.
“They’re saying everybody should wear masks, although of course not at lunch,” stated Dr. Myrto Ashe, a family medicine specialist in San Rafael. “… They’re saying vaccinating would be a great idea, but we won’t be able to do it in time. They’re saying testing is so nice, but it’s expensive so you don’t have to.”
What does all this mean for Alameda County?
As of February 26, Alameda County has a COVID case rate of 55 per 100,000 people, and a positive test rate of 2.6%. As a result, Alameda is in the “substantial transmission” category, and schools in the county that choose to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines would follow the K-12 hybrid format. Under this framework, routine screening testing of students, teachers, and staff should be offered once per week. Physical distancing of 6 feet is required, and sports and other activities can only occur outdoors.
Since the CDC’s guidelines are all advisory, it is ultimately up to the schools, whether public or private, to decide whether or not to adopt these plans. Though private schools are more likely to be open currently than public schools, there are still state regulations that all schools need to follow in order to operate safely.