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Will New Federal COVID Guidance Lead to Open Schools?

school closed due to coronavirus concept

Feb. 24, 2021 -- Newly released CDC guidance on reopening K-12 schools is at odds with what states and local schools are already doing, leading to confusion as many administrators and teachers grapple with a return to the classroom.

For example, when community COVID-19 rates are significant to high, the CDC recommends remaining in hybrid mode or reducing student attendance. This conflicts with state mandates in Arkansas, Florida, and Texas, and soon to be Iowa, which require schools to offer on-site instruction to all students 5 days a week, despite high rates of the virus in many areas.

The only exceptions the CDC suggests for keeping schools open with higher levels of community spread are when there are few cases among staff and students and if schools strictly follow all five mitigation strategies: universal masking, physical distancing, hand-washing, cleaning and healthy buildings, and contact tracing with isolation/quarantine.

“We know that some schools have not been following the recommended mitigation strategies we know to work,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said at media briefing Friday to unveil the guidelines. “For these schools, we are not mandating that they close. Rather, we are providing these recommendations and highlighting the science behind them to help schools create an environment that is safe for schools -- for students, teachers, and staff.

Ultimately, state governments and local school boards decide when and how to reopen. For some administrators and staff already providing in-person instruction, the guidance may have little impact.

“I am encouraged that the CDC has illustrated an ability to provide relevant updates to districts regarding how to operate in-person in the safest manner possible,” says Craig Broeren, superintendent of Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools in Wood County. “What is disappointing to me is that these guidelines do not seem to take additional steps at providing guidance to schools who have already safely conducted in-person instruction for the majority of the [school] year.”

The updated guidelines won’t impact his schools much, Broeren says, because, “We have developed our approach in consultation with local medical doctors as well as our public health department and are confident that, based on what we have seen in terms of research and available anecdotal evidence, that our proposed changes will not exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in our community in any significant manner.”

The district has had a mix of full-time and hybrid classes since the fall, with options for parents who wanted to remain completely virtual.

In Cincinnati, OH, students at Norwood High School were already in classrooms 4 days a week, and the school will return to in-person teaching full-time on March 22.

“What the CDC says is not going to matter because we have to do what our district mandates,” says Leila Kubesch, who teaches Spanish to eighth to 12th graders at Norwood High. “What's in our control is to stay positive and follow the safety protocol.”

Some parents are concerned that what teachers and families do outside the classroom will drive up community transmission regardless of the CDC school guidance.

“These are suggestions and not mandates, so it’s really up to each district and school site to decide what they deem necessary to reopen, based on community transmission and what’s happening in each city,” says Andrea Wader, a parent of a fourth grader and president of the John C. Fremont Elementary PTA in the Long Beach Unified School District in California. “That makes me a bit nervous … that’s it’s still so arbitrary. We see many families and even some teachers at many different schools on social media doing their own thing on the weekends, like the virus just magically disappears when Friday comes.”

Mitigation Strategies

While requiring mask-wearing in schools, the federal guidelines recognize that students and staff don’t wear them correctly, which is covering both the nose and mouth. The U.S. Department of Education has also released recommendations for schools as part of the first volume of its COVID-19 handbook.

The handbook shows ways to ease the COVID-19 risk, such as using signs and announcements to remind students and staff to wear masks correctly.

The agency promised to give schools more specific strategies when it addresses more topics in the second volume in the coming weeks, according to Donna Harris-Aikens, senior adviser for policy and planning at the Department of Education.

The CDC appears flexible with its physical distancing requirement when community transmission isn’t high.

“In those areas with low to moderate transmission, which is where less than 5% of our communities are right now, we are worried that people will not be able to get back to full, in-person learning if we mandate 6 feet of physical distance. We believe that at such low levels of transmission, that schools could be kept safe,” Walensky said.

Another way to enhance distancing is to keep students together in a “pod” with a core teacher and aide to reduce contacts and exposure. “Many schools are doing [podding] already. And we acknowledge this strategy is actually easier in elementary schools than it would be in middle and high school," says Harris-Aikens.

The handbook also discusses ways to creatively lay out classrooms and use auditoriums and cafeterias for teaching. It also gives ways to stagger use of communal spaces and change bell schedules to streamline foot traffic in the school.

Rather than have middle and high school students rotate classes and teachers, the Department of Education handbook proposes alternatives, like rotating teachers and having teachers work together as teams.

Kubesch, the Norwood High teacher in Cincinnati, doesn’t think that’s a good idea. “The bigger concern is teacher safety. Three teachers in Arizona who shared a classroom got sick with COVID-19, and one died.”

She also says that teachers keep books and teaching materials in the classroom, which can be heavy, and that she now uses the breaks when students rotate classes to clean their desks and the plexiglass barriers that separate them.

Wader, the PTA president in Long Beach, is also concerned that “there is no district protocol for cleaning. Some teachers were told that they cannot use their own Clorox disinfecting wipes. They must sign up for mandatory training through the district to have permission to use their wipes that contain alcohol but are permitted to use Huggies wipes. Huggies wipes were meant for a baby’s sensitive skin, not to kill germs or viruses, so I think it’s a giant waste of money to be using them to ‘clean’ classrooms under current circumstances.”

School Sports, Events

The CDC also wants schools to make in-person learning a priority over extracurricular activities, including sports and school events, to lessen the risk of passing the virus around. A large COVID-19 outbreak occurred in December in Florida after a 10-team high school wrestling tournament. The tournament was held when community transmission was high, and 38 of the 140 total attendees and 41 of their 95 contacts tested positive, according to a CDC report in January.

To cut the spread of COVID-19, the CDC guidance recommends that sports resume in phases. Sports are allowed when cases are low to moderate, as long as athletes are masked and maintain physical distancing. But when new cases are significant, sports should be played only outdoors. When community transmission is highest, schools should consider no sports until the rates decline.

Despite these recommendations, the CDC in January recognized that contact sports such as basketball, football, and wrestling don’t allow for physical distancing. Also, mask-wearing doesn’t work well in high-contact sports such as wrestling. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that wrestlers not wear masks when actively wrestling because it considers them a choking hazard.

Some reopened school districts have continued with their athletics programs. Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools is running athletics at the high school level “somewhat as normal,” including volleyball, football, and cross-country in the fall, and hockey, wrestling, and basketball in the winter. The main ways to ease the spread of COVID-19 are masking and “podding,” in addition to sanitation protocols, says Broeren.

“If we do have a positive athlete, typically their team or those who have had direct contact with the positive student would quarantine. Volleyball had to quarantine for a while based on their positive tests. But the pandemic overall has not significantly disrupted sports for us,” he says.

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Sources

Leila Kubesch, teacher, Norwood High School, Cincinnati, OH.

Andrea Wader, parent; president, John C. Fremont Elementary PTA, Long Beach, CA.

Craig Broeren, superintendent, Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools, Wood County.

CDC: “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation,” “SARS-CoV-2 Transmission Associated with High School Wrestling Tournaments -- Florida, December 2020-January 2021,” “Ventilation in Buildings.”

U.S. Department of Education: “ED COVID-19 Handbook Volume 1: Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “COVID-19 Interim Guidance: Return to Sports.”

EdWeek: “CDC Releases New COVID-19 Guidance for Schools. Will It Help Them Reopen?”

CNN: “Three Arizona teachers who shared a classroom got coronavirus. One of them died.”

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