The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presented comprehensive new guidelines on Friday on how schools can be safely reopened for personal learning despite the spread of the coronavirus and highly contagious new variants.
The guidelines recommend schools graduate their reopening plans based on the severity of the outbreak in their areas. It is recommended that schools adopt "essential elements" for resumption of personal learning, including wearing masks, exercising physical distancing, and monitoring the level of spread in the surrounding community.
At the same time, the Department of Education published Volume 1 of its Personal Learning Guidelines to complement the CDC's guidelines.
"I want to be clear. In releasing this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools be reopened." CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on a conference call with reporters. "These recommendations only provide schools with a long-needed roadmap for how to safely do this under various disease levels in the community."
According to the CDC, schools should also implement a testing program as an "additional layer" of Covid-19 prevention to identify and isolate infectious people and vaccinate teachers and staff "as soon as supplies allow". Walensky urged states to give teachers and educational staff priority access to the vaccines.
"Data suggests that it is possible for communities to eradicate cases of COVID-19 while keeping schools open for face-to-face classes," the guidelines read. "In addition, models of consistent implementation of mitigation measures in schools have shown that it is effective in limiting outbreaks and infections in schools."
However, the agency noted that the guidelines may need to be updated as new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus spread across the U.S.
"When we get to a point here where we are beyond the red zone and there is a really high level of community diffusion in terms of the variants or just more transmission, we may need to double-check," Walensky said.
The CDC said the first step in considering whether schools should reopen is to assess the rate of spread in the community. The agency recommended schools to monitor the total number of new cases per 100,000 residents in the community in the past seven days, as well as the percentage of positive tests in the past seven days, also known as the positivity rate.
According to the CDC, all schools can be safely reopened to full face-to-face learning if they follow appropriate protocols and are in communities that have reported fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 population in the past seven days and have a positivity rate below 8% lies . It is possible for schools in communities with higher prevalence in some days or with limited attendance and stricter infection prevention measures to reopen to face-to-face learning, according to the CDC.
Walensky noted that currently more than 90% of K-12 schools in the country are in high transmission areas. In communities with very low prevalence, schools can even relax the protocol for infection prevention like physical distancing, she added.
"If municipalities implement mitigation strategies and strictly adhere to them, the level of transmission by the municipalities will be slowed down," the new guidelines say. "This in turn will allow schools that are open to face-to-face learning to stay open and schools that have not yet reopened will help them return to face-to-face teaching."
The CDC found that younger children may be less prone to Covid-19 than older middle and senior school aged children. It said schools should give priority to bringing back elementary school students who are the least likely to get Covid-19 and who appear to be less likely to spread the virus than teenagers.
And the CDC urged school administrators and local officials to "provide fair access to a healthy educational environment for all students and staff." White House Covid-19 response officials said justice is the "north star" for federal response to the pandemic.
"The lack of personal educational opportunities can put children of all origins at a disadvantage, especially children in communities with limited resources who may be at an educational disadvantage," the new guidelines state. "On the other hand, certain racial and ethnic groups have borne a disproportionate burden of disease and grave consequences from COVID-19."
The agency said school districts should take an active role in helping underserved families, "including parents / guardians of color students, low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, students with homelessness and students in foster care."
Walensky and Donna Harris-Aikens, senior policy and planning advisor for the Department of Education, announced the new guidelines for a conference call with reporters.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, welcomed the new guidelines and said they should have been published 10 months ago. She also called on Congress to provide funding to school districts to reduce the cost of compliance with the new guidelines.
"Today the CDC answered the pandemic fear with facts and evidence," she said. "For the first time since this pandemic began, we have a rigorous, science-based roadmap that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening."
The new guide comes after Walensky said last week that schools can safely reopen even if teachers haven't been vaccinated. The White House quickly distanced itself from the comment. Press secretary Jen Psaki said it was not an "official guide" from the CDC.
President Joe Biden has made reopening the country's schools for personal teaching a top priority. He promised in December that he would resume face-to-face tuition in most schools in the country for the first 100 days of taking office, but Biden did not define what it means for a school to "reopen".
In January, he said the target only applies to schools teaching students through eighth grade. Earlier this week, the White House further clarified that schools are considered open as long as they teach in person at least one day a week. Psaki said Wednesday the target is part of the White House's "bold, ambitious agenda", adding that it is a floor the government hopes to cross.
"His goal is for the majority of schools, more than 50%, to be open by the 100th day of his presidency," she said. "And that means some lessons in classrooms. So at least one day a week. Hopefully it's more."
In-person education came to an abrupt halt across the country in March as schools switched to distance learning to protect students, teachers and parents from the coronavirus. However, education experts and public health groups, including the World Health Organization, have warned of the permanent consequences of keeping students out of the classroom. Economists have also warned of the impact on working parents, especially mothers, who have lost record numbers of jobs during the pandemic.
Former President Donald Trump urged governors and local officials to reopen schools for personal learning, saying in July that closing schools will likely cause "more deaths". However, under his administration, the CDC gave little guidance on how and when to safely reopen, saying instead that the decision should be made by local and state officials.
In the USA the problem is controversial. Some say the risk of the coronavirus for children is lower than the consequences of missing school. While children and young adults in general are less likely to get seriously ill and die of Covid-19, the risk is increased if the person has an underlying condition that affects their immune system. According to the CDC, more than 120 people under the age of 20 died of Covid-19 in September in the United States.
Instead of a previously clear federal approach, state, local and school officials have all set their own course on how and when schools should reopen. Data from Burbio, a service tracking school opening plans, recently reported that nearly 65% of K-12 students are already learning in person to some degree.
– CNBC's Hannah Miao contributed to this report.