This week, more than two thirds of US school districts were open for in-person school, an encouraging milestone. For the first time, a plurality (39.7%) returned students five days a week. This only served to augment the well-established evidence that schools can be reopened safely.
Unfortunately, efforts to reopen schools took a big step backwards this week, as the CDC introduced new school guidance. It came under immediate fire for its likelihood to stymie school reopening, especially in the districts that have struggled to reopen. One of the authors of the CDC’s Wisconsin study spoke out in concern, and JG Allen of Harvard Chan published a swift critique, fueling a wave of outcry.
The commonly-cited issues with the guidelines include:
The CDC guidance flies in the face of evidence about COVID and schools.
The CDC introduced closure thresholds based on local COVID rates — ignoring the overwhelming evidence that COVID transmission has been modest in schools, regardless of levels in the community. In fact, Governor Cuomo of New York has moved from closure standards based on community spread to standards based on COVID rates in schools, after seeing that schools have had lower COVID rates than the community, so they are the safest environments. Closure based on school-level COVID rates has emerged as the smart norm.
Worse, the community thresholds set by the CDC are absurdly low. Right now, zero percent of students live in the CDC’s blue ‘safe to open’ regions, and 91% live in supposedly-problematic red zones. Yet 64% of districts are currently open! Clearly, the CDC has not provided reasonable guidelines.
America stands alone for imposing excessive distancing in schools.
The CDC guidelines recommend six foot distancing in schools as the default — even though the WHO, the AAP, Harvard and Brown experts, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine support 3-foot distancing when masks are being used. Only the US promotes 6-foot distancing.
JG Allen of the Harvard Chan institute noted that six foot distanding “has a weak scientific basis,” and others concur.
The CDC has not presented any evidence that supports the six-foot guideline. Rather, the CDC’s own studies showed that schools could safely reopen with less distancing.
Social distancing expectations are highly consequential because US classrooms can’t accommodate full classes with six-foot distancing given space limitations. To expect six-feet between students is to force hybrid schooling. All students deserve the full-time, 5 day in-person school that is happening in 39% of US districts, as well as European schools. Doing so requires that the CDC revisit excessive distancing standards that match the science, and rest of the world.
The CDC guidance is inconsistent.
While introducing the new guidance, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters, “What we are finding from the science-based literature is that there is more spread that is happening in the community when schools are not open than when schools are open.”
Then, she debuted standards which make school reopening more challenging. Something doesn’t add up.
What’s more, the CDC’s own team members have advocated different standards in their own communities. CDC Director Walensky advocated for three-foot distancing in her hometown, and other CDC members called for grades 6–12 reopening. When they craft the national guidelines, are these leaders following their own science-based advocacy — or is something else driving the decisions?
Currently, President Biden is angling for significant funding for schools, mostly for staffing. It sure looks like school closures are being used as a trading card. We are incensed by the appearance that leaders are playing politics with our children.
President Biden campaigned on a promise to follow the science, and to open schools within 100 days of the election. This does the opposite.
Our kids are suffering — particularly our most vulnerable students. We need districts, journalists, state leaders, and families to demand answers about and updates to these guidelines from the CDC.
In addition to revised guidance, we also want a roadmap to normalcy. The CDC guidance treats vaccination as but one layer of mitigation, as opposed to the rapidly-approaching point when school can resume as normal. The CDC must signal an end game, rather than consigning children to a half-time education for the foreseeable future, with no relief in sight.
The repercussions of closed schools will harm a generation of children for their lifetimes — and have cascading impacts on all layers of society — if we do not correct our current course.
This letter was co-authored by parent groups across the US. Follow us on Twitter.