Health Policy

CDC Releases Updated Guidance Plan for Reopening Schools

On Friday, Feb. 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an updated guide on how K-12 schools around the country can take steps to safely reopen—for good.

The data-driven strategy expands and updates previous recommendations, including practical suggestions on how school officials can phase in and combine safety precautions like social distancing, mask-wearing, washing hands, safe sneezing and coughing, building and ventilation cleaning, and contact tracing.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky emphasizes that the guide is not a mandate for schools to reopen, nor is it to be interpreted as blanket permission for them to do so. If anything, the CDC cautions school officials to not become overconfident based on low community transmission rates or the availability of a rubric to follow.

The guide breaks down plans for schools to reopen into four color-coded zones:

  • Blue (0-9 cases per 100,000 in the last 7 days): Schools in blue zones are encouraged to fully reopen.
  • Yellow (10-49 new cases per 100,000 in the last 7 days): Schools in yellow zones are also encouraged to fully reopen.
  • Orange (50-99 new cases per 100,000 in the last 7 days): Schools in orange zones may consider a limited reopening strategy with multiple proper safety precautions in place.
  • Red (100+ new cases per 100,000 in the last 7 days): Elementary schools in red zones may consider a limited reopening with required social distancing procedures, but middle and high schools are recommended to continue virtual learning.

For schools in orange and red zones, the unbreakable standard is to space students at least 6 feet apart. Smaller facilities that can’t comfortably provide this space are, for the moment, strongly discouraged from reopening.

The guide also cautions schools to ease back into athletics activities carefully, if at all, and especially for indoor sports. According to NPR, the CDC recently reported an outbreak at two Florida high-school wrestling tournaments in which 38 of 54 attendees who were tested afterward received positive results.

Regarding vaccinations, although they are of course an invaluable method of protection, the guide states, “access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.” Educational workers are currently included in group 1B, or “frontline essential workers,” on the vaccination priority list.

Regarding testing, the guide recommends weekly testing for all teachers and staff of schools in all four color-coded zones. It also recommends weekly testing of all students in yellow, orange, and red zones.

While most of the guide’s contents are nothing new and follow previous CDC recommendations, the CDC suggests them “more forcefully” and emphasizes the importance of implementing them “strictly and consistently.” The guide is especially firm on wearing masks, pointing out that most clusters of transmission in school settings are the result of either not wearing masks properly, or not wearing them at all.

Despite the CDC’s caution, Walensky emphasizes the importance of reopening schools, safely, as soon as possible: “School should be the last places closed and the first places open,” she said. “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.”

The push to reopen schools comes, in part, as an effort by President Joe Biden to fulfill his promise of returning the majority of U.S. schools to in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says that the guide “affirms what many of us, including students and parents, have known for months: It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible.”

About the Author

Matt Jones is senior editor of Spaces4Learning. He can be reached at [email protected].

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