CDC school guidance emphasizes masks and social distancing

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Face masks and social distancing of at least six feet should be prioritized for teachers and students in K-12 schools as they reopen, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized on Friday as it released a new operational strategy for schools alongside new guidance from the Education Department.

“These two strategies are incredibly important in areas that have high community spread of Covid-19, which right now is the vast majority of communities in the United States,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Friday. “We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask wearing.”

Teacher vaccinations can also serve as an “additional layer of protection” atop masking, distancing, hand-washing, facility cleaning and rapid contact tracing, plus quarantines for the infected, Walensky said. She urged states to prioritize school educators for vaccinations. But the CDC’s guidance reiterates that access to vaccines "should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction."

The Education Department also released what it described as the first volume of a handbook meant to guide educators on masking and physical distancing, which officials said was intended to supplement the CDC operational strategy.

“I want to underscore that the safest way to open schools is to ensure that there is as little disease as possible in the community,” Walensky said on Friday. “We know that the introduction of subsequent transmission of Covid-19 in schools is directly connected to and facilitated by transmission of Covid-19 outside of the schools and in the community.”

Key context: Walensky had also outlined key parts of her agency’s perspective earlier this month. She’s said opening schools for face-to-face classes requires getting the virus under control, and teachers don’t need to be vaccinated for in-person classes to safely resume. Walensky also emphasized campuses can reopen with the right combination of precautions.

“The data from schools suggests that there’s very little transmission that is happening within the schools, especially when there’s masking and distancing occurring,” Walensky told reporters earlier this week.

“When there are transmissions in the schools, it is because they’ve been brought in from the community, and because there are breaches in masking and distancing,” she said on Monday. “So if we want to get our schools open — and our schools open safely and well — the best way to do that is to decrease the community spread.”

White House weighs in: The White House has salted in some of its own commentary.

After Walensky’s comments about teacher vaccinations caused a stir last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed the CDC’s official guidance hadn’t yet been released and that prioritizing teachers for vaccines was important to the president. Psaki also noted densely populated urban schools face “more of a challenge” to reopen for in-person instruction when compared with rural campuses highlighted in recent CDC research.

On Tuesday, Psaki added a bit of nuance to President Joe Biden’s commitment to reopen most K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office. “Open,” as Psaki defined it to reporters, means educators are teaching students in-person at least one day a week. Then on Wednesday, Psaki said that goal is “not the ceiling” but “the bar we’re trying to leap over and exceed."

“The President will not rest until every school is open five days a week," Psaki said Thursday. "That is our goal,"

Tough calls ahead: Three CDC officials declared in January that resuming in-person instruction may require tough calls from local officials — including limits on indoor school sports and restrictions on indoor restaurant dining when Covid-19 infection rates are high.

“Decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the U.S.,” the CDC’s Margaret Honein, Lisa Barrios and John Brooks wrote in a journal article in late January. “Some of these decisions may be difficult.”

The experts said schools need to maintain universal face mask use and physical distancing, use hybrid schedules when needed to prevent crowding, increase room air ventilation and expand screening to rapidly identify and isolate asymptomatic infected individuals.

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