The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released guidelines for reopening schools that focus on five key Covid-19 mitigation strategies: the universal and correct wearing of masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

Vaccines and testing are not among the “key” strategies the agency lays out, calling them “additional layers” of Covid-19 prevention.

But the new recommendations come amid a national debate about when and how to reopen schools, even as fear of spreading the coronavirus continues and a push to prioritize teachers for vaccinations grows.

“I want to be clear, with this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing on Friday.

“We also know that some schools are already providing in-person instruction and we want them to be able to continue to do this, but we know that some are not following the recommended mitigation strategies we know to work,” Walensky said. “For these schools, we are not mandating that they close; rather, we are providing these recommendations and highlighting the science behind them to help schools create an environment that is safe for schools, students, teachers and staff.”

CDC urges mask-wearing, distancing in schools

Walensky added that while each strategy is important, CDC recommends “prioritizing the first two” — wearing masks and physical distancing.

“These two strategies are incredibly important in areas that have high community spread of Covid-19, which right now is the vast majority of communities in the United States,” Walensky said. The recommendations also emphasize keeping students in cohorts or “pods” to limit their contact with others and encourage physical distancing.

The new recommendations also note that the risk of Covid-19 spread in a school can be associated with how much spread is in the surrounding community.

“I want to underscore that the safest way to open schools is to ensure that there is as little disease as possible in the community. We know that the introduction and subsequent transmission of Covid-19 in schools is connected to and facilitated by transmission of COVID-19 in the community,” Walensky said on Friday.

The CDC recommendations include a color-coded chart to describe levels of transmission from blue for low transmission, to yellow for moderate, to orange for substantial and then to red for high transmission.

President Joe Biden said in a statement on Friday that the new CDC guidelines provide “the best available scientific evidence” on how to reopen schools safely, which remains one of his goals.

“We have sacrificed so much in the last year. But science tells us that if we support our children, educators, and communities with the resources they need, we can get kids back to school safely in more parts of the country sooner,” Biden said in part.

“When my Secretary of Education is confirmed, I will task him with working alongside school administrators, educators, and parents to safely accelerate the process of school reopenings. As many states continue to follow the CDC’s recommendation to prioritize teachers for vaccination, I urge all states to follow suit.”

Biden has said he will work to reopen most K-12 schools within his first 100 days in office but has stressed he will rely on health and medical experts to dictate the national guidance in order to reopen safely.

“It is a challenge to guarantee, or to say that our schools could open in 100 days — because of the deep investments that need to be made around what it takes to get schools ready and prepared to reopen,” Annette Anderson, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and serves as deputy director for the new Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told CNN on Friday.

“What I’m struck by is this notion that, even with the layered mitigation that they are suggesting is really an important strategy, that the CDC is not mandating that schools reopen — that’s a critical piece of this conversation because I think there was this expectation that after the 100 days, there was going to be some kind of opening that would mean all students would go back immediately,” Anderson said.

“We now know that this is going to be a much more nuanced process, and it will take time,” she added. “I think we can be hopeful that if schools adopt these strategies and as they continue to gradually reopen, that by fall, we will see more of our students in the classrooms for face-to-face learning.”

Medical reference: Medical News Today