What the CDC's 'Guidelines' for Reopening Schools Actually Say


Illustration for article titled What the CDCs Guidelines for Reopening Schools Actually Say
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As we wrap up this school year with virtual graduations and drive-by celebrations, parents everywhere are asking: What will school look like in the fall? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) weighed in this week with a list of recommendations school leaders should consider as they reopen during the pandemic—but its advice reads more like “just do your best” than “here’s what you have to do.”

The CDC kicks off its document of “considerations” by stating that their advice is meant to supplement—not replace—any state or local laws, rules or regulations:

Schools can determine, in collaboration with state and local health officials to the extent possible, whether and how to implement these considerations while adjusting to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the local community. Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community.

In other words, what school looks like in the fall is going to depend on a variety of factors. Every school, every district and every community is different, and what is feasible for one may not be feasible for another. That’s probably not what any of us want to hear, but it’s the reality of living through this pandemic.

Guiding principles

By now, we all know that COVID-19 spreads mostly through respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough or sneeze. The CDC says the virus may also spread to hands from a contaminated surface—and then to the nose or mouth, causing infection. So the more kids, teachers and school staff are together, and the longer they interact, the higher the risk of spread.

So although this is probably common sense by now, the CDC explains the spectrum of risk associated with how schools might reopen:

  • Lowest Risk: Students and teachers engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events.
  • More Risk: Small, in-person classes, activities, and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures, or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).
  • Highest Risk: Full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.

Promoting behaviors that reduce spread

Given that we know how the coronavirus spreads, and that 25 kids and one teacher jammed into a single classroom—plus facilities like cafeterias being shared among the entire student population—is a riskier proposition than finding a way to space everyone out, the CDC next reiterates behaviors schools can encourage to attempt to reduce the spread. Those include:

  • Educating staff and families about when they should stay home
  • Teaching and reinforcing proper hand-washing
  • Encouraging covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue (or into an elbow if a tissue is not available)
  • Using cloth face coverings whenever possible, particularly for staff and older students (and never for kids under age 2), especially when physical distancing is difficult
  • Offering frequent reminders to not touch their face coverings, as well as advice for how to use, remove and wash masks
  • Providing adequate supplies, including “soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol (for staff and older children who can safely use hand sanitizer), paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings (as feasible) and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans”
  • Posting signs in high-traffic areas that promote these preventative measures, broadcasting regular messages to reinforce them over the school’s PA system and communicating them with staff and families through the school’s website, social media and via email

Maintaining “healthy environments”

Perhaps the most daunting part of the CDC’s advice is its list of strategies for schools to consider for keeping the environment healthy. These strategies include things you would expect: cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and shared objects, discouraging the use of shared objects that are difficult to clean.

But then the recommendations get more challenging: Space desks six feet apart when feasible. When not feasible, turn desks to face one direction, rather than facing them toward each other. Have students sit on only one side of a table. Have them spread out on school buses by seating them one child per row and skipping rows when possible.

And even more challenging: Install physical barriers, such as sneeze guards, in places like reception desks or between bathroom sinks—anywhere maintaining physical distancing is challenging. Use tape on the floors as guides for helping staff and students stay six feet apart when in line. Close communal spaces such as cafeterias, playgrounds and libraries when possible—or stagger their use, cleaning them between each group. Use disposable food service items and serve lunch in the classrooms.

The CDC also offers advice for protecting staff and students who are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, pursuing virtual field trips, limiting non-essential visitors from entering the school and staggering drop-off times.

When taken as a whole, it’s a pretty extensive and downright overwhelming list. But it’s helpful to keep in mind that the CDC is not saying “all schools must do all of this.” What they are saying is, the more of these measures that can be implemented, the lower the risk of spread within a school community.