The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday released long-awaited guidance on safely reopening schools, emphasizing the importance of having schools open as long as proper coronavirus safety precautions are followed.
The guidance states it is "critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible," given the benefits of in-person learning.
The top recommendations for doing so safely are universal wearing of masks by students, staff and teachers as well as distancing so that people are six feet apart.
COVID-19 vaccination of teachers should be prioritized, the agency said, but "should not be considered a condition" of reopening schools.
The CDC says schools can adjust whether they are fully in-person or hybrid learning depending on the level of spread in the surrounding community and mitigation measures in place.
Schools are encouraged to use "podding" to separate students into smaller groups to help make contract tracing easier.
The Biden administration has faced heavy scrutiny over its position on school reopening in recent weeks, with Republicans accusing it of bowing to teachers unions in not backing statements from the CDC director about the ability of schools to reopen.
Some teachers unions, for example, have called for vaccinations before returning to the classroom, which the CDC says is not necessary.
CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyOvernight Health Care — Biden defends push for vaccine mandates CDC: Unvaccinated 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 AmeriCorps partnering with CDC to recruit, train public health leaders MORE said Friday that there had been no "political meddling" in her agency's recommendations, though she added she had shared some pieces with the White House to let them know what the CDC was planning.
"The science has demonstrated that schools can reopen safely prior to all teachers being vaccinated," Walensky said.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten released a largely positive statement in response to the guidance.
“Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence," she said. "For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening."
Still, Weingarten also added that "securing the funding to get this done" is needed to "make this guidance real," and called for passing Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package, which includes more money for schools.
The CDC breaks transmission levels for communities surrounding schools into four levels. At "low" and "moderate" transmission, all K-12 schools can open for full in-person instruction with distancing "to the greatest extent possible."
The far more common situation in the U.S. right now, however, is "substantial" or "high" spread.
In "substantial," schools should be in hybrid instruction, the CDC says. In "high" spread, middle and high schools should be in virtual-only school unless "they can strictly implement all mitigation strategies" and have few cases.
Expanded screening, while not a requirement, can also help middle and high schools stay in hybrid learning even with "high" transmission, the CDC said.
"Substantial" spread qualifies as 50-99 new cases per 100,000 people, and "high" is 100 or over.
—Updated at 3:33 p.m.