CDC’s classroom guidance would keep 90% of schools at least partially closed

A student is seen on the steps of the closed public school PS 139 in the Ditmas Park neighborhood in Brooklyn of New York, the United States, Oct. 8, 2020.

Michael Nagle | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s long-awaited guidance on how to safely reopen schools during the pandemic could end up keeping kids out of the classroom longer than necessary, four doctors who reviewed the guidance told CNBC.

Many public health specialists applauded the agency last week for releasing the clearest and most comprehensive federal guidance yet on whether and to what extent schools should reopen. The 35-page document defines “essential elements” of reopening that include social distancing, universal masking and some testing. It also lays out a set of parameters to gauge how widely the coronavirus is spreading within a community and whether schools should fully reopen for in-person learning or maintain a partial or fully remote learning schedule until the outbreak subsides.

However, doctors who spoke with CNBC pointed out notable shortcomings of the guidance, saying that it would keep more than 90% of schools, including in almost all of the 50 largest counties in the country, from fully reopening.

If the CDC guidance is strictly followed, these doctors said, schools might not fully reopen for in-person learning for months — even if doctors think they could reopen safely much sooner.

Restrictive metrics

Only a handful of counties, including Honolulu County, Hawaii, and Cass County, North Dakota, meet the CDC’s criteria to fully reopen schools. Los Angeles County, California, Cook County, Illinois, Harris County, Texas, and almost every other city in the country wouldn’t make the cut. In fact, they fall into the CDC’s most restrictive requirements to reopen schools based on high levels of community transmission there. But doctors who spoke with CNBC said schools in those counties can safely reopen for fulltime in-person learning even with high levels of spread if the correct protocol is followed.

“Something we know one year out in this pandemic is that you can keep schools safe even if you have high rates of community transmission,” said Dr. Syra Madad, senior director of the systemwide special pathogens program at New York City Health + Hospitals. “Those benchmarks will probably put more pressure on schools than needed.”

Walensky has defended the agency’s approach.

“We know that the amount of disease in the community is completely reflected as to what’s happening in school. If there’s more disease in the community, there will be more in school,” she said Sunday on CNN. “So, I would say this is everybody’s responsibility to do their part in the community to get disease rates down, so we can get our schools opened.”

‘Tough spot’

Infection prevention


Notably absent from the CDC’s guidance, Wen noted, are ventilation measures. Evidence has been mounting since the beginning of the pandemic that the coronavirus can spread efficiently through the air. Airborne pathogen specialists and epidemiologists have called on the federal government to incorporate air safety standards in schools and workplaces.

The CDC’s guidance has just one paragraph on ventilation, saying “improve ventilation to the extent possible such as by opening windows and doors to increase circulation of outdoor air.” The four doctors CNBC spoke with for this article said the ventilation guidance doesn’t go far enough. Wen said the CDC should have issued guidance on portable air filtration systems, if not recommendations on how to overhaul school HVAC systems, which would be enormously expensive.

Wen said she felt the omission of guidance on classroom ventilation is a sign the CDC is pursuing expediency over school safety, but others who defended the agency said it was likely an attempt to combine science with reality.

Additionally, Wen, Schaffner and Madad all said the CDC should have further emphasized the importance of vaccinating not just teachers, but all school staff. While none of the doctors said teacher vaccinations were necessary to reopen schools, they said the CDC should have urged states to prioritize teachers.

“If the CDC had come out and said really strongly, ‘this is a critical part of reopening,’ it would have put pressure on these governors to prioritize teachers,” Wen said. “That to me is the single biggest oversight and I truly do not understand why they want to spark this debate.”

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