Unlike other countries, the US leaves school control at the local level, and the challenges to providing in-person instruction are not the same everywhere, making it nearly impossible to create effective federal and even state-level guidance as the pandemic wears on.
Some buildings don’t have enough space to spread students out, while others don’t have adequate ventilation systems. In some places, school authorities face strong opposition from powerful teachers’ unions.
Here are some of the pain points slowing down the process.
Specifics in new CDC guidance create new headaches
But there’s been little movement by all-virtual districts since then.
Instead, the Philadelphia School District didn’t bring back pre-k through second-grade students last week as planned. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to strike a deal with legislators and school groups after suggesting an agreement was imminent earlier in the month.
“Guidelines based on well documented studies would hopefully have led to some meaningful school openings,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco.
The CDC advises districts to implement five key mitigation strategies — masking, physical distancing, hand washing, cleaning and improving ventilation, and contact tracing and quarantine — and to assess the level of Covid spread in the community, phasing in learning modes accordingly. It also says that testing and vaccinating teachers can provide an additional layer of protection.
Experts say the revised guidance is clearer than what was released last summer, but warn that giving more specificity can paradoxically create barriers to reopening.
Gandhi said she is particularly disappointed that the guidance emphasized a tie to community incidence and that it specified keeping six feet of distance — which many districts don’t have the space to do.
“In a way, being more clear can create specifics that may not fit everyone’s parameters and justify closures,” she said.
Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, agreed that there is some confusion about whether desks need to be six feet apart and over the tie to community transmission.
“The new guidance reinforces our recommendation that with proper mitigation measures, schools can safely reopen even in areas of high transmission,” Beers said.
Space is limited
“I don’t think schools that were closed this past fall are going to reopen next fall. This is 100% about distancing. Community spread should be down by then, but the distancing problem will still be there,” said Karen Vaites, a New York mom and literacy advocate who is helping organize the parent-led movement Open Schools across the country.
The study found few instances of in-school transmission among students and staff members — even when the percentage of people testing positive in the community was as high as 40%. While masking was required, the K-8 students were mostly between three to six feet apart.
Only seven of the 191 Covid cases reported were transmitted in school. There were not cases transmitted between a student and a teacher.
“I would have said three to six feet apart is sufficient for K-8 students, according to our data,” Hoeg said.
“I don’t think it’s smart to say reopening should be based on community transmission rates. It’s like we’re backpedaling,” she added.
Showdowns with teachers’ unions
Teachers aren’t always prioritized for the vaccine
In some places, including Los Angeles, union leaders say they don’t want schools to reopen before their staff is entirely vaccinated.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has said vaccines don’t need to be a requirement, but that teachers should be prioritized.
About 82% of educators had not been vaccinated at the start of February, according to a survey conducted by the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country.
Biden’s muddled messaging
Biden came into office pledging to open most schools during his first 100 days, an ambitious goal from the start. The federal government can’t mandate schools to reopen and it’s unclear exactly how the administration will evaluate success.
Districts often move to all-virtual instruction when there are too many cases reported, though the number of cases that requires a shut down greatly varies by district. When cases spiked over the holidays, about 55% of students’ schools were virtual-only, according to Burbio.
As of February 21, about 31% of K-12 students were attending all-virtual schools. Nearly 43% were enrolled in schools that are open every day for in-person instruction.
CNN’s Elizabeth Stuart, Kristina Sgueglia, and Meridith Edwards contributed reporting.
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