On July 9, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance regarding school reopening this fall. The guidance calls for a full reopening of all K-12 schools across the country. The CDC stated that “students benefit from in-person learning” and therefore made returning to school in person a priority. However, this statement was accompanied by a list of preventive measures that are designed to keep both students and teachers safe. This article will discuss these preventive measures and when they will come into play.
With schools reopening five days a week and to full capacity, three feet of physical distance is still recommended indoors, but when schools are unable to maintain this physical distance, they should “layer multiple other prevention strategies.” These layers of protection include wearing of masks for individuals over 2 years of age, regular testing for infection, improvement of ventilation systems, handwashing and disinfecting, and contact tracing. These layers of protection have been implemented to help students, teachers, staff, and family members who are not vaccinated. Unvaccinated students should not be excluded from in person learning in order to provide more room for physical distancing.
The CDC stated that those who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks even if additional layers of protection are enforced. However, many students will not be vaccinated by this fall as the Pfizer vaccine is the only one approved for individuasl under 18 and has only been approved for those who are 12 and older. The guidance encourages as many eligible individuals as possible to get vaccinated before the start of the school year. Schools are even encouraged to offer on-site vaccination, to provide paid sick leave to employees that use the time to get vaccinated, and to accept getting vaccinated as an absence excuse for students. Currently, about 55% of the U.S. population is vaccinated, and 67% of individual 18 years or age or older have gotten at least their first dose. At least 80% of teachers, staff, and other childcare workers have started the vaccination process.
If a student, teacher or staff member is experiencing COVID-19 or Influenza-like symptoms, the CDC advises that they should get tested and stay home if they’re sick. If someone has come in contact with a person that has tested positive for COVID-19, they should stay home and quarantine according to local and CDC guidance. Vaccinated people do not need to stay home, get tested, or quarantine if they have been exposed to the virus, as long as they are not showing any symptoms.
Local mandates and policies are still of a higher authority than CDC guidance so local officials will be able to determine what they think is best for their area and enforce their own set of standards, whether that may be standards that are more strict or less strict. The CDC suggests that localities that choose less strict standards remove prevention strategies on a one-at-a-time basis and monitor any changes in infection rates. The next strategy should only be removed when it is determined that there has not been an increase in infections.
New York City
On July 12, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said that despite the CDC guidance, all New York City public school students must continue to wear masks indoors. However, Mayor de Blasio did leave room for additional assessment at a later time as the city’s infection rates continue to be monitored. New York City joins the state of California in that Governor Gavin Newsom issued a similar approach, citing that many schools do not have the necessary amount of room for social distancing. The state of New Jersey will not require schools enforce mandatory masking, but the city of Newark will also continue to require it.
Last month, the New York State Department of Health made similar recommendations to those of the CDC and received the same response from Mayor de Blasio. However, he indicated that mandatory mask wearing may change in the fall but for now schools will stick with face coverings. In New York City, roughly 10% of schools may need to find additional space for students in order to fit all students, as there is not enough space in classrooms. Only 10% of students ages 12 to 17 are currently vaccinated. Expanding the eligible age group to younger students may be a key factor in how New York City schools approach in-person learning in the future.
At the end of June, New York City’s positive COVID cases were at about .6%. Last week they averaged at 1.27%. Although not a large figure, this doubling in positive cases likely played a part in Mayor de Blasio’s decision.
The CDC guidance has provided clarity on how schools should approach reopening this fall. However, states and localities will have ultimate discretion in how they choose to regulate reopening, allowing for more conservative measures now, and situation re-evaluations later.