WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped into the longstanding debate over whether and how to keep schools open during a pandemic, issuing guidance Friday (Feb 12) to safely put students back in class.
The agency outlined mitigation strategies that include the proper use of masks, social distancing of six feet (1.8m), strict cleaning and maintenance of classrooms, and rapid contact tracing.
And while the guidance doesn't mandate reopenings, the CDC calls it "critical for schools to open as safely and as quickly as possible for in-person learning."
CDC chief Rochelle Walensky also urged states to make vaccinating teachers a priority, though she did not call it a prerequisite for reopenings. Schools should also regularly test students and teachers and do all they can to improve ventilation, she said.
"To enable schools to open and remain open, it is important to adopt and correctly and consistently implement actions to slow the spread of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, not only inside the school, but also in the community," according to the CDC guidance.
The agency pointed out that the data available show "in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission."
President Joe Biden issued a statement acknowledging that many of the CDC guidelines would be costly and difficult to implement.
"But the cost of keeping our children, families, and educators safe is nothing when compared with the cost of inaction," Mr Biden said.
The president did not specifically address brewing disputes between teachers unions and local governments about resuming in-person learning before full vaccinations, saying only that he encouraged states to give priority to educators for shots and that he would direct the Department of Education to "safely accelerate the process of school reopenings.
The CDC guidelines also urged school officials to closely monitor community transmission, suggesting that different levels of transmission might require different action by individual school districts.
In areas with low or moderate spread, for instance, all grades can be in classrooms with masking and social distancing in place, according to the CDC.
In areas with substantial transmission, elementary schools should be in hybrid mode. Middle and high-school students could do the same, or come in with reduced attendance, the guidance suggests.
Finally, in communities with very high transmission, middle and high-school students should stay with virtual learning unless all mitigation strategies are strictly maintained.
Whether students should physically attend school has been among the most contentious issues of the US pandemic response. The stakes are high for Mr Biden, who has made ending the coronavirus crisis a central goal.
Many children in the US have been learning online for almost a year, as last spring many schools were closed to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. Some teachers have opposed reopening classrooms because of health concerns.
States are starting to offer Covid-19 vaccines to teachers, though supplies are limited and finding an appointment can be difficult.
Parents still may face tough decisions over whether to send their children back, even if classrooms are reopened.
Ms Leigha Senter's two elementary-aged children are scheduled to return to in-person instruction full time in March, a "really difficult call to make," she said.
"I have a little bit of anxiety about everyone being in the classroom at once, but I'm not sure that we have a real viable alternative," said Ms Senter, who is in Ohio's Delaware county, which exceeds the CDC's threshold for high transmission.
Ms Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, called the recommendations "an informed, tactile plan that has the potential" to help school stay safe.
"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."
Ms Weingarten called on the US Congress and Department of Education to "make this guidance real" by securing funding for districts nationwide.
In some cities, local officials have been fighting teachers unions on how and whether it's safe for teachers and students to be in the classroom, leaving students in online limbo as major school districts decide how to proceed.
Schools should be safe for in-person learning if the new guidelines are met, National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement.
"Schools should be the safest place in any community," she said. "Now that we have clearer CDC guidance, state and local decision makers need to be able to look educators, students, and parents in the eyes and ensure that with full confidence.
Mr Biden, in an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, reiterated his view that schools should "reopen safely" soon.