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What You Need to Know About CDC Guidelines for Reopening Schools

Across the United States, COVID-19 cases are plummeting. With infection rates rapidly decreasing and vaccine distribution ramping up, schools are beginning the planning required to bring students back to the classroom. But what does that look like? While most states don’t have a specific order when it comes to school closure — a move that leaves the decision to reopen and subsequent planning up to the school district — a lot can be learned by reading the CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools. Here are the takeaways:

Mitigation Strategies

One of the overarching messages that the CDC has when it comes to students safely returning to the classroom is that it advises schools to use the same mitigation strategies and proactive childcare measures the agency has been recommending to the general public for months. This includes universal mask wearing by students and teachers and maintaining six feet of physical distance to the greatest extent possible. Rigorous hand washing, cleaning, and disinfectant, the CDC says, is also an integral part to also curbing the spread of COVID-19. Also, while the CDC does not recommend schools conduct symptom screening, the agency advises schools to strongly encourage parents or caregivers to monitor their children for symptoms and keep sick students at home.

Phased Reintroduction of In-person Learning

The CDC has put out guidelines for when in-person learning should take place and what activities a school should continue to offer based on the community’s transmission rates, which is broken down into four distinct categories. In each phase, the CDC recommends the use of the mitigation strategies mentioned above. In cases of low and medium community transmission rates, the CDC advises K-12 schools to open for in-person instruction. Sports and extracurricular activities are also acceptable in these two categories. Though in the case of a medium transmission rate, the CDC advises for more adherence to physical distancing standards during these activities.

The CDC classifies the third category as schools in communities with substantial transmission rate. In these instances, it calls for middle and high schools to opt for a hybrid or reduced-attendance learning model and restrict all sports and extracurriculars to only take place outdoors. For schools in communities with high transmission rates, the CDC recommends that middle and high schools use the virtual learning model, though clarifies that schools that were already open for in-person learning can remain open if they have few cases and adhere to strict mitigation strategies. In both the substantial and high transmission categories, the CDC advises that elementary schools use a hybrid model that adheres to social distancing guidelines.

Testing & Outbreak Plan

Regardless of a community’s level of transmission, the CDC recommends that schools have a prompt and coordinated plan for investigating a positive COVID-19 case. This includes offering referrals to diagnostic testing to any student, teacher, or staff member who shows symptoms of COVID-19. Having a plan for case investigation and contact tracing is an integral part of a school’s plan to safely return to in-person learning. In the case of a positive COVID-19 test, the CDC advises schools to work closely with local health officials and K-12 administrators to facilitate the case investigation. Next, the CDC advises that the school help with identifying those who may have had close contact with the infected person and assist with notifying these individuals of their potential exposure, encouraging quarantine and isolation.

What Teachers Need to Know

In its guidelines for reopening schools safely, the CDC offers a litany of resources for teachers and staff to best adhere to its prescribed mitigation steps. In its holistic approach, the agency recognizes that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to staying safe while returning to in-person teaching. For example, the CDC acknowledges that some teachers have close contact with students with disabilities. In these and other circumstances, the CDC recommends the use of physical barriers, reduced caseload, relocating to a better ventilated space, or more protective equipment. The agency also offers assistance for teachers who are unsure about how to set up their classroom, including diagrams for desk placement, hand sanitizer stations, and strategies for increasing ventilation.

While some school districts have already reopened, others have remained closed for nearly a calendar year. For those administrators, teachers, students, and parents, returning to in-person learning may sound like a scary ordeal. However, these clear guidelines by the CDC stand to offer some peace of mind so that students, especially the youngest learners, can safely return to the classroom.