With more and more states pushing forward with plans for phased reopenings, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released its guidelines for reopening K-12 schools. But alongside guidance on increasing the frequency of hand washing and reinforcing the use of cloth face coverings among students comes a stark warning that any in-person school setting will come with a risk of COVID-19 infection.
President Donald Trump has pushed back against the CDC’s guidance for reopening schools, calling them “impractical,” “tough,” and “expensive” and vowing to meet with the agency. “I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools,” the president tweeted on July 8. “While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!”
Despite the president’s criticism, CDC Director Robert Redfield said the agency had no plans to revise its guidelines. The CDC would, however, release additional reference documents. “Our guidelines are our guidelines, but we are going to provide additional reference documents to aid basically communities that are trying to open K-12s,” Redfield said during an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America. “It’s not a revision of the guidelines. It’s just to provide additional information to help schools be able to use the guidance we put forward.”
But Redfield was also quick to emphasize that the CDC’s guidelines were exactly that — guidance. “They’re not requirements,” Redfield said. “The purpose of those guidances is to help local jurisdictions open their schools.”
In reopening guidelines released in May, the CDC said there were a number of actions schools could take to lower the risk of infection for students, teachers, and staff. "The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread," the CDC said in its guidelines.
The agency classified a schedule of only virtual classes, activities, and events as having the "lowest risk" while noting small, in-person classes where students can remain at least six feet apart and don’t share objects or mix with other student groups had "more risk." Full sized, in-person classes where students cannot sit spaced apart and must share materials or supplies and mix between classes were deemed to have the "highest risk." The CDC has encouraged schools to work with their state and local health officials and implement the suggested guidelines that seemed most feasible and practical for their community.
Teach and reinforce use of cloth face coverings
While noting that younger children may be especially adverse to wearing cloth face masks for long periods of time, the CDC recommends schools teach and reinforce their use among both students and staff.
According to the CDC, face masks are especially important in times when physical distancing would be difficult, such as in a small classroom. The federal health agency also recommends schools raise awareness about the proper way to remove and wash cloth face coverings and frequently remind students not to touch them and to wash their hands frequently throughout the day.
Close communal and shared use spaces
The CDC recommends schools close communal spaces such as cafeterias, dining halls, and playgrounds whenever possible. In situations where closure was not an option, schools are advised to stagger students' use of shared spaces while scheduling cleaning and disinfecting between each group's use.
"Have children bring their own meals as feasible, or serve individually plated meals in classrooms instead of in a communal dining hall or cafeteria," the CDC recommends, adding that schools should be sure to observe students' food allergies if providing meals.
Install physical barriers
The CDC recommends schools install physical barriers, screens, or partitions in areas where physical distancing could be difficult. Suggested locations included between bathroom sinks and at reception desks. It was also suggested that schools place markings signaling six feet on hallway floors, sidewalks and walls to encourage physical distancing.
Spacing desks six feet apart and more modified layouts
To better ensure students, teachers, and school staff's ability to practice social distancing, the CDC recommends schools modify classroom layouts and other procedures. Along with spacing desks six feet apart and turning them to all face in the same direction, the CDC also recommends schools create "one way routes" in hallways. Schools are also urged to find ways to increase the space between children who ride a school bus by skipping rows and seating only one child in a row.
As much as possible, the CDC says schools should leave windows and doors open to increase the flow of fresh air in classrooms and other areas of the school.
Virtual events in place of traditional field trips
The CDC recommends schools pursue virtual activities in place of traditional field trips and host virtual group events in lieu of school-focused social events like parent-teacher meetings, assemblies, and performances.
Support the mental health of students and staff
To support the mental health of students, teachers and staff, school administrators are advised to encourage breaks from ingesting COVID-19-related news and social media. The CDC notes schools should promote healthy habits like good nutrition, exercise, adequate sleep, and talking out concerns and emotions with trusted adults
Do away with perfect attendance awards
The CDC recommends schools implement policies regarding student absences and staff sick leave that encourage those who feel ill or who have recently had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 to stay home without fear of repercussions. In regards to students, the CDC recommends schools suspend the awarding of perfect attendance awards as well as any assessment of students' work or performance that revolved around absenteeism. If feasible, the CDC recommends schools offer virtual learning and telework options to students, teachers, and staff.
While the United States' top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has urged states to take a cautious approach to reopening schools, President Trump has continued to push for schools to reopen in the fall. "I think you should absolutely open the schools," Trump reportedly said when meeting with governors from Colorado and North Dakota in May, according to USA Today. "I don't consider our country coming back if the schools are closed."
Despite the president's push, when and exactly how schools will reopen will differ state to state and potentially even district to district. And while there are still many questions to be addressed, photos from schools that have reopened around the world could give an idea of what schools might look like after coronavirus shutdowns here in the United States.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.
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