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The guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said schools can open safely in districts with low case numbers as long as everyone wears masks © AFP via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its long-awaited road map for getting students back to classrooms in the middle of a pandemic. But its guidance is just that — the agency cannot force schools to reopen, and agency officials were careful to say they are not calling for a mandate that all U.S. schools be reopened.

Officials said there is strong evidence now that schools can reopen, especially at lower grade levels.

Financial times cited the guidelines noting that schools can open safely in districts with low case numbers as long as everyone wears face masks. But if levels are as high as they currently are in 90 per cent of US counties, children should be kept six feet away from each other if possible, and school sports should be reduced.

The CDC is also recommending regular handwashing, good ventilation and rapid contact tracing should cases occur in schools. All of these remain recommendations, however, and the final decisions about school reopening will be made by state or local education boards, alongside individual schools themselves.

5 Key Strategies to reopen schools

Mask-wearing, distancing in schools is urged

CDC recommends "prioritizing the first two" -- wearing masks and physical distancing.

"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 Dr. Rochelle Walensky. The recommendations also emphasize keeping students in cohorts or "pods" to limit their contact with others and encourage physical distancing, CNN reported.

A pre-school student gets his temperature checked before enterin classroom. Photo: AP.
A pre-school student gets his temperature checked as he walked into prementary school in Chicago. Photo: AP.

The new recommendations also note that the risk of Covid-19 spread in a school can be associated with how much spread is in the surrounding community.

The CDC recommendations include a color-coded chart to describe levels of transmission from blue for low transmission, to yellow for moderate, to orange for substantial and then to red for high transmission.

President Joe Biden said in a statement on Friday that the new CDC guidelines provide "the best available scientific evidence" on how to reopen schools safely, which remains one of his goals.

Biden has said he will work to reopen most K-12 schools within his first 100 days in office but has stressed he will rely on health and medical experts to dictate the national guidance in order to reopen safely.

Vaccination does not considered the key strategy

In the new guidelines, the CDC does not list vaccination as a "key" strategy for opening schools, focusing instead of measures such as masks and physical distancing. Vaccinations for staff and teachers are "an additional layer of protection," Walensky said.

She added that the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that frontline essential workers -- a group that includes educators -- be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccination.

Anderson said that vaccines are important to help rebuild trust with families, especially those who are skeptical that schools are ready to reopen.

"That's the work of our federal government right now, to help to convince families that they have provided the support for reopening, and that they have a tiered strategy that is going to help the schools to systematically follow a protocol that can be trusted," Anderson said. "That was missing a year ago."

'This is free from political meddling,' CDC director says

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), called the CDC's new recommendations an "informed" and "rigorous" roadmap for the federation's members to use. Weingarten added that AFT remains supportive of widespread testing, which the guidance is "instructive" for, and noted that the guidance reinforces prioritizing vaccines for teachers and school staff.

Several CDC officials have complained that the Trump White House interfered with guidance, even reviewing scientific documents. This new CDC guidance is based on science and free of political interference, Walensky said.

"I can assure you that this is free from political meddling," she told reporters on Friday.

What does science say?

Walensky on Friday said that the CDC grounded its new recommendations in science and "the best available evidence." The agency also released a scientific brief to accompany its new strategies for schools. The brief includes references to CDC data and separate studies published in journals such as Archives of Disease in Childhood and Lancet Infectious Diseases, as well as some pre-print research.

A CDC science brief posted on Friday notes, "Based on the data available, in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission."

Rather, "when community rates of COVID-19 are high, there is an increased likelihood that SARS-CoV-2 will be introduced to, and potentially transmitted within, a school setting. Evidence to date suggests that when schools implement mitigation strategies with fidelity, transmission within schools can be limited," according to the scientific brief. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes Covid-19.

When COVID-19 transmission is safe, unsafe to open

For the first time, the CDC's guidelines define levels of low, moderate, substantial and high coronavirus transmission and suggest what instructional models schools should use for the risk.

The criteria is based on the total number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days days and the percentage of positive tests during the last seven days.

The CDC unveiled a color-coded chart detailing the four levels of transmission risk.

Anything below 50 new cases per 100,000 people and below an 8% positivity rate is considered moderate or low transmission. Full in-person learning across all grade levels is recommended when these thresholds are met.

Fifty or more new cases per 100,000 people and 8% or above is considered substantial or high transmission, under the guidelines. Schools are advised to use hybrid instruction models that include virtual classrooms during these scenarios.

COVID-19 screening welcomed, but not a requirement

The CDC also recommends schools refer any student, teacher or staff member who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested for the virus. Health officials suggest local officials confidentially provide information about people diagnosed while following privacy laws.

"Persons with positive test results should isolate, and close contacts should quarantine," the report says.

Although the CDC welcomes schools screening students and staff for the virus, officials stopped short of including the practice in the guidelines. If school districts do take this step, teachers should be given higher screening priority over children because adults are more susceptible to disease.

Biden has also proposed $130 billion for school reopenings in his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, that he hopes to push through Congress within the next few weeks.

In a statement on the new CDC guidelines, Biden pointed to expenses tied to school reopenings: more teachers to ensure smaller class sizes; additional buses and bus drivers to transport students safely; more spaces to conduct in-person instruction; and more protective equipment, cleaning services and physical alterations to limit the spread of the virus.

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