As I See It – CDC unfolds road map to re-opening of schools!

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Are we safe to reopen schools now?

One of my students asked me: “Sir, when are we going back to school?” He said it has been a while and besides, he is getting bored at home. In addition, he added he is not learning much through online classes because he has unstable internet connection.

The following day, a parent of one of my students called: “Mr. Estioko, when are the students going back to school?” She claimed her daughter is not regularly participating in the virtual classroom because she is not comfortable learning using the computer.

These are virtual learning challenges we must contend with indicating that sometimes online learning is not that effective, although studies show it is as effective as in-person learning given full internet support. But due to poor internet connections or the students are not that engaged, parents are advocating to go back to in-person learning despite the corona virus which has been affecting the schools for almost a year now.

Today, I feel secured and confident in dealing with students and parents’ inquiry after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out with an announcement that schools are reopening with a definite plan at hand with safety considerations and securing welfare of students… and of course, teachers in the light of the new UK variant and the South Africa strain now in the US.

NPR KQED News (February 12, 2021) reported that CDC has Offered the Clearest Guidance Yet for Reopening Schools. This time, unlike the previous administration where there was no master plan leaving the implementation to local governments, President Joe Biden has directed the CDC to come up with a road map with federal backing, of course, to reopen the schools.

CDC released on Friday its much-anticipated, updated guidance to help school leaders decide how to safely bring students back into classrooms, or keep them there. This is good because it is coming from the top with federal mandate, unlike before… there was no master plan and guidelines and implementation rests in the hands of local governments. 

The updated master plan is a measured, data-driven effort (based on science) to expand on old recommendations and advise school leaders on how to “layer” the most effective safety precautions: masking, physical distancing, hand-washing and respiratory etiquette, ventilation and building cleaning, and contact tracing. This was the nature of the directive of President Biden on “safe” reopening of schools.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday on a phone briefing with reporters “that proper mitigation can help keep kids and staff safe at school, even in hard-hit communities, though it also warns that schools lulled into a false sense of security because of low community transmission rates could still spread the virus if they do not enforce mask-wearing and socially distanced classrooms.”

The updated guidance offers few key changes which includes color-coded charts that divide schools’ reopening options into four zones: blue, yellow, orange and red. Districts with low community spread of the coronavirus (blue, 0 to 9 new cases per 100,000 in past seven days) or moderate transmission (yellow, 10 to 49 new cases) are encouraged to consider reopening for full, in-person learning.

Schools in areas with substantial transmission (orange, 50 to 99 new cases per 100,000), according to the color-coding scheme, may still consider a limited reopening if they can layer multiple safety strategies in the classroom. On the other hand, those in hard-hit communities (red, more than 100 new cases per 100,000), elementary schools may consider limited reopening, with physical distancing required and other CDC requirements.

Based on the updated guidance, the 6-foot standard guideline should be considered nonnegotiable for K-12 schools where transmission is substantial or high.
This means that social distancing, just like wearing of face coverings, is a must in the reopening of schools.

AASA head Daniel A. Domenech, in a statement, applauded the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education “for the coordinated and collaborative effort to provide clear, actionable guidance that school system leaders can incorporate into their reopening plans.”

Several recent, forceful statements by CDC scientists were also incorporated in the guidelines.

“Schools should be the last places closed and the first places open,” Walensky, a line that officially appears in Friday’s guidance: “K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.”

Also, late last month, several CDC scientists co-authored an article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Associationsaying there is little evidence that school reopening has contributed meaningfully to the spread of COVID-19.

Friday’s guidance cites much of the research referred to in the JAMA article, including studies of schools in North Carolina and rural Wisconsin that reopened in the fall. In the former case, a review of districts serving more than 90,000 students and staff found just 32 infections were acquired in school — compared with 773 cases of students and staff infected outside school. None of those 32 in-school transmissions involved students infecting teachers or staff.

In the other study, of 17 Wisconsin schools, high compliance with mask-wearing helped keep the COVID-19 incidence lower in schools than in the larger community. Of 191 documented COVID-19 cases among students and staff, just seven happened at school.

The new CDC guidance also warns schools to think twice about resuming athletic activities, especially indoors. The agency reported on an outbreak stemming from two high school wrestling tournaments in Florida, after which 38 of 54 attendees who were tested had tested positive. Some brought the virus back to their family and friends. One person died. In the new guidance, the CDC advises that in communities with substantial transmission, sports and extracurricular activities should only occur “if they can be held outdoors, with physical distancing of 6 feet or more.” In communities with high transmission, they say, these activities should be virtual only.

While the guidance emphasized the importance for teachers and other school personnel to be vaccinated before schools should reopen, it also recommends that “access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”

In a recent interview with Boston Public RadioRandi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, appeared to agree, saying that while vaccination for teachers is “not a precondition” to reopen schools, she considers it a top priority.

While CDC clarified that it is not a requirement for teachers to be vaccinated when they reopen, amid surges, teachers line up for their vaccines. CDC guidance places education workers in group 1b, “frontline essential workers,” toward the front of the line for vaccine priority. However, states are free to make their own decisions. In some parts of the country, teachers are lining up for their shots while continuing to work from home, and in other states, it’s the opposite.

In addition, the guidance provides new details on how schools can use testing to spot and contain outbreaks. For example, it recommends the weekly testing of teachers and staff at all levels.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki, on Thursday, clarified that Biden wants schools open five days a week. “That’s what he wants to achieve,” Psaki said. “And we’re going to lead with science.”

Are we reopening schools this time? With a federal mandate and a workable workplan laid down by CDC, I think we will be safe reopening the schools!

ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author @ estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.

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