With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releasing its full operational strategy for reopening K-12 schools this week, back to school season could be underway shortly.
The long-awaited 33-page document, unveiled on a call between CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky and reporters Friday afternoon, is an evidence-based roadmap for educators. "Today, the CDC is releasing an operational strategy for K-12 schools through phased mitigation that provides a pathway to support schools in opening for in-person instruction and remaining open," Walensky told the media. "This science-based strategy recommends an integrated package of tools that supports safe school reopening and protects teachers, students and school staff."
Walensky emphasized that the plan is "grounded in science" and relies on "the best available evidence" to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 in schools. "I know that teachers, parents and state and local leaders have been stretched thin trying to navigate this pandemic," Walensky said. "Instead of asking them to piece together a patchwork of guidances by topic, we believed it was important to create a one-stop-shop to provide the scientific information they need to keep teachers, students and other school staff safe when schools choose to reopen."
Among the new concepts is a color-coded system for determining where transmission is too high to reopen schools, which Walensky says underscores that a community effort is required. "The safest way to open schools is to ensure that there is as little disease as possible in the community," she noted. "We know that the introduction of subsequent transmission of COVID-19 in schools is directly connected to and facilitated by transmission of COVID-19 outside of the schools and in the community. Thus enabling schools to open and remain open is a shared responsibility."
Yahoo Life Medical Contributor Dr. Dara Kass says the toolkit is a "step in the right direction," which will provide a lot of clarity to individual states. "There's always going to be more that you want from it," says Kass. "But I think that it is an excellent start for now." As local leaders begin to review the guidance, here's what you need to know.
The strategy emphasizes "layering mitigation strategies," specifically focusing on five areas
The document begins with five key mitigation strategies that all schools should be practicing to manage COVID-19 risks, many of which were present in earlier school guidance. These include:
Universal and correct use of masks
Hand-washing and respiratory etiquette
Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine in collaboration with the health department
The key to correctly implementing these strategies, Walensky said on the call, is adopting more than one. "One of the most pivotal components of this strategy is layered mitigation," Walensky said. "Recognizing that all mitigation strategies provide some level of protection, but when implemented together — or layered —they provide the greatest level of protection." One of the most frequently mentioned is "consistent and correct" mask usage by students and staff throughout the day.
States now have a color-coded system to determine whether community transmission is too high to open
One of the new parts of the CDC's school guidance is a color-coded system for measuring risk through community transmission. Schools in communities (i.e. a county) that report between 0-9 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 are considered low transmission (blue), between 10-49 are moderate (yellow), between 50 and 99 cases per 100,000 people are considered substantial (orange) and those with over 100 are considered high transmission (red).
Each color has its own limitations depending on the level of spread, such as hybrid learning or virtual sports.
Kass says that using this color coding in tandem with something like COVID Act Now — a website that tracks infection rates by county — could help local leaders make decisions about whether it's safe for their school to be open. "When you look at orange, that's no outdoor sports, no indoor sports ... it's granular and I think that's good," says Kass. "People don't realize how many counties in America are in those orange or red zones. There are going to be plenty of counties in America that should be closed based on these numbers that aren't."
Physical distancing is encouraged, as well as creating "pods" within the school
The new guidance spends a fair amount of time focusing on the importance of physical distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. "Physical distancing (at least 6 feet) should be maximized to the greatest extent possible," the report reads. "To ensure physical distancing, schools should establish policies and implement structural interventions to promote physical distance of at least 6 feet between people."
The authors suggest that schools create "pods" or "cohorts" of students (and sometimes teachers) who stay together throughout the day to minimize exposure. Another suggestion is to create staggered schedules so that fewer students are in the building at one time. But even with these ideas in mind, some teachers have expressed doubt about their ability to maintain physical distance, calling it "impossible" and "unrealistic."
Kass agrees. "The issue around social distancing and physical distancing is actually the barrier to in-person education full time," she says. "This addresses it more, but doesn't go all the way." Kass thinks that the CDC's plan should include more detail and information for schools that aren't able to implement physical distancing, even when some of these methods are tried. "This all exists in a world where you're basically re-imagining schools from an abstract," says Kass. "A great guideline for what you do, but we have buildings and we have students. So where is the guidance to tell us how to use the buildings we have with the students we have to be as safe as possible?"
The report calls on states to prioritize teachers for vaccinations
Near the end of the report, the CDC notes that while schools can reopen safely without teachers being vaccinated, it suggests that they should be prioritized. "Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2," the report reads. "State, territorial, local and tribal (STLT) officials should consider giving high priority to teachers in early phases of vaccine distribution."
Walensky ended on the importance of this point. "We strongly encourage states to prioritize teachers and other school staff to get vaccinated," she told reporters. "If we want our children to receive in-person instruction, we must ensure that teachers and school staff are healthy and protected from getting COVID-19 in places outside of school where they might be at higher risk."
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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