Coronavirus: CDC releases new school reopening guidance

WASHINGTON — Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance Friday emphasizing mask wearing and physical distancing to allow schools to safely reopen amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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Update 2:30 p.m. ET Feb. 12: On Friday, CDC officials emphasized that in-person learning has not been identified as a substantial driver of coronavirus spread in the U.S. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, said transmission among students is now considered relatively rare, with staff-to-staff transmission of the virus being the most common.

The CDC stressed that the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible. The agency urged local officials to assess whether a bad outbreak is occurring in a community when making decisions about sending adults and children in to schools.

Update 2:15 p.m. ET Feb. 12: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, outlined five key mitigation strategies that officials have identified to allow schools to safely reopen: universal and correct wearing of masks, physical distancing, hand washing, maintaining clean facilities and conducting contact tracing and implementing quarantine measures.

“The CDC recommends prioritizing the first two: universal and correct use of masks that should be required for all students, teachers and staff -- and physical distancing of at least six-feet between people and cohorting or podding of students to minimize exposure,” she said.

>> Read the full guidance released by the CDC

Officials emphasized that the strategies should be used together for best effect.

“One of the most pivotal components of this strategy is layered mitigation,” Walensky said. “All mitigation strategies provide some level of protection, but (they’re most effective) when they’re integrated together or layered.”

She added that officials are “encouraging states to prioritize education staff for vaccines.”

“We can’t talk about reopening schools without talking about protection,” she said.

Original report: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, and Donna Harris-Aikens, senior adviser for policy and planning for the Department of Education, are expected to unveil the guidance at a news conference scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Friday.

Last week, Walensky said an increasing amount of data showed that teachers won’t need to be vaccinated to safely reopen schools. At a news conference following her comments, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the comment did not amount to “official guidance” from the agency.

President Joe Biden has made reopening schools closed by the threat of COVID-19 one of his top priorities.

“The president wants schools to open safely and in accord with science, and we are going to listen to science and medical experts,” Psaki said Thursday at a news briefing. “We are eager to hear more about the clear, science-based guidelines for opening schools, and how we can do that safely and how we can keep them open.”

In December, Biden pledged to reopen “the majority of our schools” in his first 100 days in office. He later specified that the goal applied only to elementary and middle schools, and this week, the White House said schools would be considered open as long as they teach in-person once a week.

Republicans accused Biden of backpedaling on his pledge and caving to teachers unions that have opposed reopening until their demands are met. Biden’s critics have said schools are safe to open now, citing CDC findings that stated that, with the right precautions, it’s generally safe to hold classes in-person.

On Thursday, Psaki said the president “will not rest until every school is open five days a week.” She added that Biden’s primary role is to deliver funding to schools to help them reopen.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan includes $130 billion to help schools upgrade buildings, buy protective equipment and take other steps to reopen. House Democrats advanced that portion of the package this week using a special process enabling them to pass the bill down party lines.

As of Friday afternoon, 27.4 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 nationwide, resulting in over 476,600 deaths, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, health officials have confirmed 108 million COVID-19 cases, resulting in 2.3 million deaths.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.