New CDC guidance ends up deepening debate over reopening schools

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New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is adding fuel to the fire of a raging debate over school reopening, with some experts saying the guidelines erect too many barriers to kids returning to the classroom.

The Biden administration has been facing thorny questions on the issue for weeks, caught between competing forces, including experts emphasizing the safety of returning to school with precautions, and teachers unions in many places that are resistant to returning.

But far from settling the debate, Friday’s guidance from the CDC has added to the disputes, with some critics arguing the agency did not follow the evidence in full.

In particular, one criticism is that the guidance cautions schools about reopening if there is high transmission of the virus in the surrounding community. The CDC says middle and high schools should be fully virtual in areas of “high” transmission, which is currently over 90 percent of all U.S. counties, unless they can “strictly implement all mitigation strategies,” or set up routine screening testing.

Some public health experts argue there is no strong backing in the science for basing reopening on levels of spread in the surrounding community, and that if schools implement precautions like universal masking and distancing, they can safely reopen regardless of nearby transmission levels.

“Community transmission has never been associated with success or failure if mitigation measures are in place,” said Daniel Benjamin, a Duke University professor who co-authored a prominent study on coronavirus transmission in North Carolina schools.

Referring to the CDC’s color-coded community transmission guidelines, he added: “Not one number in the color-coded advice has been validated for decisions on schools.”

Republicans have been hammering President Biden for not pushing harder for schools to reopen, saying he is beholden to teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency.

Some in the GOP faulted the CDC guidance as part of the problem for adding needless obstacles to reopening, and not abiding by Biden’s own mantra of “follow the science.”

“Biden Administration refuses to ‘follow the science’ that shows schools across America have already proven they have reopened safely,” tweeted Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. “Still creating barriers to reopen.”

The Texas Republican pointed to a Washington Post op-ed by Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Helen Jenkins of the Boston University School of Public Health criticizing the CDC guidance for “new and unnecessary demands that will ultimately keep millions of kids out of school,” including taking into account spread in the surrounding community and recommending screening tests.

“The new report on schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be a wake-up call to parents everywhere: If they’re not back already, your kids are not going back to school full-time this year,” Allen and Jenkins wrote.

Asked about the criticism from experts about basing school reopening recommendations off of spread in the surrounding community, a CDC spokesperson pointed out that the guidance notes that schools in high-transmission areas, or “red” areas, can still open if they are “strictly” following precautions.

“At all levels of community transmission, the strategy provides options for in-person instruction,” said CDC spokesperson Benjamin Haynes. “Our recommendation is that schools in red areas can in fact provide in-person instruction, as long as they are strictly implementing mitigation and monitoring cases in the school community.”

The Biden administration has repeatedly said more funding is needed for schools to reopen safely, and pointed to the $170 billion in school funding that is part of the massive relief package it’s urging Congress to pass. Republicans counter that Congress already approved $82 billion for schools in December’s relief package.

A major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, largely praised the CDC guidance on Friday, though it added that “securing the funding to get this done” is necessary to “make this guidance real.”

Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California-San Francisco, said some of the most important precautions, like masking and distancing, are not expensive. “Masks are really cheap,” she said.

Improving ventilation is the only area where there is a question about sufficient funding, she said, but added that in many cases the solution is as simple as opening a window, instead of installing expensive ventilation systems.

“It didn’t seem like it would take that much funding,” Gandhi said.

Benjamin, the Duke professor, added that he would send his children to a school “today” as long as it simply followed masking and distancing precautions.

He added there is some debate over whether 3 feet or 6 feet is needed between students, but that “preliminary data” says 3 feet is sufficient.

Gandhi pointed to a study released by the CDC in January, in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), which found lower levels of virus in schools than in the community in Wisconsin, and just seven cases of in-school transmission among 17 K-12 schools over several weeks in the fall, with strong mask-wearing.

The data “published in their own MMWR journal” shows schools can open safely separate from transmission in the surrounding community, Gandhi said.

While guidance from the federal government can play an important role, the ultimate decision on reopening school districts is made at the local level.

Benjamin Linas, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, wrote in a piece published by Vox on Monday that the teachers union in his hometown of Brookline, Mass., was a barrier to science-based reopening. 

“If educators and their unions don’t embrace the established science, they risk continuing to widen gaps in educational attainment — and losing the support of their many long-time allies, like me,” he wrote.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, responded on Twitter, pointing to New York City, which reopened elementary schools in December and is bringing back middle schools later this month.

“Unions are not monolithic-there are many places like NYC that have reopened [with] the appropriate safeguards,” Weingarten wrote. “I understand this dad’s frustration, but there is a roadmap working elsewhere [with] strong unions leading the work to #reopen safely.”

Tags American Federation of Teachers CDC CDC guidance Coronavirus COVID-19 Joe Biden Kevin Brady school reopening schools Students teachers teachers unions

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