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Will the New CDC Guidelines Help Schools Reopen Faster?

elementary school girl wearing mask putting on hand sanitizer at desk

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Key Takeaways

  • New CDC guidelines state that it is safe for elementary and secondary schools to return to school if there are virus mitigation strategies in place.
  • The CDC does not make teacher vaccination a requirement to reopen schools.
  • Students from low income communities may experience the most lasting effects from missing a year of school.

On February 12, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines to safely reopen schools across the country, paving the way for communities to prioritize the importance of getting children back into the classroom either full-time or using a hybrid model. 

The new safety guidelines, which include updated scientific data, reinforce President Biden’s goal in ensuring that every student deserves a high-quality education during—and beyond—the pandemic, which has been out of reach for many disadvantaged students since last March.

The guidelines say teacher vaccination is not a prerequisite to reopen schools, a requirement that many teacher unions have stipulated to bring students and staff back to campuses.

For states like California, even without a vaccine stipulation, the guidance is good enough.

“The CDC guidance is highly aligned with California’s approach and will not affect school reopening guidance reflected in California’s established K12 School Guidance that was updated on January 14,” the California Department of Public Health tells Verywell via email. “California schools must continue to follow the criteria and processes for school reopening outlined in the state’s guidance plan.”

What the Scientific Data Says 

Through data analysis from multiple studies both abroad and in the U.S., the CDC found that COVID-19 transmission in schools is linked to the level of surrounding community COVID-19 transmission. However, data shows community-acquired infections brought into the classroom rarely spread within the school if a comprehensive mitigation plan is implemented.

One of the studies the CDC looked at involved 11 school districts in North Carolina with in-person learning for over two months during the fall 2020 semester. Even though community transmission of COVID-19 was high at the time, the CDC says minimal school-related cases were reported.

"These schools implemented and strictly adhered to multiple mitigation strategies, including universal mask use and physical distancing," the CDC says. "Breaches in mask use likely explained the few instances of in-school spread of SARS-CoV-2.”

Essential Elements of Safety 

The new CDC guidelines focus on essential elements that schools should adapt before reopening their school sites to students. 

Mitigation Strategy 

The CDC identifies five key mitigation strategies for school districts to follow to help decrease the chances of SARS-CoV-2 spreading within a school campus. The organization emphasizes that a school’s COVID-19 safety plan include; 

  • Universal and correct use of masks
  • Physical distancing
  • Hand-washing and respiratory etiquette
  • Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
  • Contract tracing

Indicators of Community Transmission

The CDC recommends watching two distinct metrics to determine community burden of COVID-19:

  • Number of cases per 100,000 in the last seven days
  • Percentage of positive COVID-19 tests within the last seven days

The guidelines highlight that if community spread is high, but several layers of mitigation strategies are implemented, then school transmission should remain low and schools should be able to stay open. However, the success of a school’s reopening plan is determined by its strict adherence to mitigation goals and reacting to the needs of the community.

Health Equity 

Job loss, food insecurity, and the threat of homelessness are only a few challenges many low-income families are facing during the pandemic, leaving many students without the means or tools to participate in distance learning. This is creating a large educational gap that will have lasting socioeconomic effects for years to come. 

A recent research article co-authored by Yale economist Fabrizio Zilibotti predicts that one year of school closures for ninth graders in the poorest communities will result in a 25% decrease in learning potential after leaving high school—even if in-person learning resumes next fall—compared to no learning loss for students in more affluent households.

Understanding the health inequality COVID-19 has created for low-income families now can help shape future policies that can hopefully get these students the support they need to overcome some of the learning lost.  

“Our analysis can guide policymakers as they consider how much priority to give to opening schools relative to other economic sectors,” Zilibotti told Yale News. “Our results show which groups of students will benefit most from returning to in-person schooling and they suggest that some of the pandemic’s impact could be mitigated once COVID-19 is under control by shortening the summer break or provided increased service to disadvantaged students.”

What About Vaccines?

Prioritizing and removing barriers for teachers and school staff to get vaccinated is optimal and an important mitigation tool to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in both the community and school setting, but the CDC recommends that access to vaccinations should not be a condition for reopening schools to in-person instruction. 

Roadblocks for Reopening

Currently, according to data from education news resource Education Week, five states have ordered schools to reopen, while the majority of states do not have any order in effect, leaving the decision to reopen schools up to local county and individual schools districts. In many states, including California, teacher union negotiations have dominated the reopening conversation for many school districts, especially when it comes to teacher vaccinations. 

In a public statement responding to the new CDC guidelines, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) said, “The new guidelines released on February 12 do not do enough to address the specific challenges of large urban school districts like LAUSD. And most troubling is that it does not require vaccinations for school staff, six-foot distancing in all schools, nor improved ventilation as a key mitigation measure.”

Education Week confirms that 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have made some or all of its teachers eligible to receive the vaccination, but whether they are able to get an appointment is dependent on vaccine supply and logistics management.

Although the CDC highly recommends following its guidelines to reopen schools, they are currently not mandated. This leaves individual state, local, and tribal governments in the driver's seat for managing the return to in-person learning. Time will tell if these guidelines make an impact on meeting the Biden administration’s goals of getting children back to school this spring.

What This Means For You

Reopening of schools is state-dependent and based on key metrics, including case severity in your community.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Operational strategy for K12 schools through phased mitigation. Updated February 12, 2021.

  2. The White House. Executive order on supporting the reopening and continuing operation of schools and early childhood education providers. Updated January 21, 2021. 

  3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 schools. Updated on February 12, 2021.

  4. Agostinelli F, Doepke M, Sorrenti G, Zilibotti F. When the great equalizer shuts down: schools, peers, and parents in pandemic times. The National Bureau of Economic Research. doi:10.3386/w28264

  5. Cummings M. COVID school closures most harm students from poorest neighborhoods. YaleNews. Updated January 5, 2021.

  6. Education Week. Map: where are schools closed? Updated on February 17, 2021

  7. UTLA. UTLA statement on new CDC guidelines for returning to in-person instruction. Updated February 12, 2021.

  8. Education Week. Where teachers are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Updated January 15, 2021.

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