Written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Emily Anthes, Sarah Mervosh and Kate Taylor
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance Friday urging schools to fully reopen in the fall, even if they cannot take all of the steps the agency recommends to curb the spread of the coronavirus — a major turn in a public health crisis in which childhood education has long been a political flashpoint.
The agency also said school districts should use local health data to guide decisions about when to tighten or relax prevention measures like masking and physical distancing. With the highly contagious delta variant spreading and children under 12 still ineligible for vaccination, it recommended that unvaccinated students and staff keep wearing masks.
The guidance is a departure from the CDC’s past recommendations for schools. It is also a blunt acknowledgment that many students have suffered during long months of virtual learning.
The new guidance continues to recommend that students be spaced at least 3 feet apart, but with a new caveat: If maintaining such spacing would prevent schools from bringing all students back, they could rely on a combination of other strategies like indoor masking, testing and enhanced ventilation. The agency made clear that masks can be optional for vaccinated people.
The guidance said that schools may opt to require universal masking if local cases were rising, for example, or if a school could not determine how many of its students and staff members were vaccinated. The guidance said that in general, students and staff members did not need to be masked when outdoors.
The CDC also strongly urged schools to promote vaccination, which the guidance called “one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations.”
In addition to masking and social distancing, the guidance said schools could consider regular screening testing, improving ventilation, promoting hand washing, and contact tracing combined with isolation or quarantine.
The new guidelines still rely on quarantine as a prevention strategy for unvaccinated students when they are exposed to the virus.
Physical separation has been contentious, and the new version may not resolve the debate. While the CDC recommends that students be permitted to sit just 3 feet apart, it continues to call for teachers and other staff members to remain at least 6 feet away from students regardless of their vaccination status — and if they are unvaccinated, 6 feet from one another.