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What the CDC’s New Guidance Says about Reopening Schools


March 5, 2021 update

Last week, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued an updated roadmap for re-opening American schools during the pandemic. This guidance has been anxiously anticipated by education leaders seeking practical strategies that are grounded in the latest scientific knowledge.


What do parents, caregivers, and educators need to know? Below are answers to five commonly asked questions:


1. Does the CDC say it is safe for schools to re-open?

    Yes, in most cases. The guidelines say that evidence shows schools are able to open safely and remain open when they follow strict protocols such as mask-wearing, social distancing, handwashing, cleaning, and contact tracing. The CDC recommends that schools be treated as the highest priority, above other nonessential businesses and activities: “K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.”

    2. Does this mean all schools will now re-open?

      Not necessarily. The CDC does not have the authority to dictate when schools re-open. Those decisions are made at the state and local levels. This guidance is meant to equip districts with best practices and inform their re-opening plans.

      3. Are we talking about all types of schools here—elementary, middle, and high?

        The guidance makes some distinctions. Because the data show that younger students are less likely to catch or transmit COVID, the CDC says elementary schools can operate safely even when the infection rate in the surrounding community is high. However, middle and high schools should remain open when transmission levels low/moderate OR those schools have the ability to regularly test students and staff to detect outbreaks. (There clear, numerical benchmarks for defining community transmission as low, moderate, substantial, or high.)

        4. Did the CDC say that six feet of distancing is required?

          Not quite. Instead, the guidelines read: “Physical distancing (at least 6 feet) should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.” What does this mean? Asked for clarification, Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, indicated that communities can use less than six feet of distancing if it is necessary due to space constraints and if community infection rates are under control. She was quoted as saying: “We’re worried that people will not be able to get back to full in-person learning if we mandate six feet. We believe that at such low levels of transmission, schools could be kept safe simply with universal masking and all the other three mitigation strategies.”

          5. What about vaccines for educators and students?

            The CDC says teachers and other school personnel should receive priority in the vaccine distribution. However, it does not recommend waiting for vaccination to re-open schools as long as other mitigation strategies—most especially masking and social distancing—can be implemented consistently.

            As for students, there is still no vaccine approved for children under the age of 16. Instead, even as more teachers and staff receive the vaccine, the CDC recommends strict continued adherence to masking and distancing to minimize transmission among students.

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