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When Schools Reopen, All Staff Should Wear Masks, New CDC Guidance Says

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Face masks would become common, cafeterias would be closed to prevent crowding, and extracurricular activities would be cancelled in areas heavily affected by the coronavirus, if schools adhere to new and long-awaited guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening schools.

The guidance includes recommendations that could alter nearly every part of the school day, from bus rides to recess. And it could present major challenges to educators returning after a long period of remote learning.

The agency quietly posted the document this week after education groups complained that federal agencies had not provided enough clarity about how to safely operate schools during the pandemic. It comes as many states have already started the massive task of planning to reopen schools that were shuttered to contain the illness. Some states are assembling task forces to make plans for both academic and logistical issues associated with starting the new school year.

The guidance includes specific recommendations on issues like disinfecting surfaces, reducing students' contact with peers, and promoting social distancing on school buses. 

But it also includes some changes from an earlier draft, which was previously leaked to the Associated Press, that may make it more difficult for school leaders seeking to interpret the guidance and put it into use.

For example, the draft gave directions for schools in phases 1-3, which apparently aligned with White House guidance on "reopening the country" in multiple phases depending on severity of conditions in a state or region. But the final document outlines protocols for "steps 1-3," leaving it less clear if it is intended to align with that White House document, which outlines a schedule for reoopening businesses, schools, and public places. 

"CDC is releasing this interim guidance, laid out in a series of three steps, to inform a gradual scale up of operations, " the new document says. "The scope and nature of community mitigation suggested decreases from Step 1 to Step 3. Some amount of community mitigation is necessary across all steps until a vaccine or therapeutic drug becomes widely available."

Among the specific recommendations included in the CDC guidance (some of these instructions become optional in step 3):

  • Face coverings should be worn by staff in all steps of reopening, the guidance says. And students, particularly older students, should be encouraged to wear fabric face masks. Masks should be worn "where feasible," particularly in situations where physical distancing is difficult.
  • Schools should increase ventilation of outside air, unless it creates concerns for students with asthma.
  • Schools should ensure water fountains are safe to use after prolonged shutdowns.
  • Students should be kept in small class cohorts throughout the day to limit possible transmission of the virus between groups.
  • Schools should turn all student desks to face the same direction and space them six feet apart if possible.
  • Common areas, such as cafeterias, should be closed, and students should eat in their classrooms.
  • Provide enough "high touch" supplies, like art supplies and electronics, so that students don't have to share and they can be disinfected between uses.
  • Conduct daily health checks of staff and students, and isolate individuals if they feel unwell during the school day.
  • Provide options for telework and virtual learning for students and staff who are at higher risk for severe illness.
  • Close schools for one or two days to clean and sanitize when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.

After getting their first view of the document, educators said it may be difficult to carry out some of the recomendations. And, on a conference call with CDC offcials Wednesday afternoon, educators asked about the feasibility of wearing masks and screening students.



Modified School Operations

Federal officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's chief epidemiologist, have said schools will be able to open in regions that have seen declining rates of the virus and are prepared to aggressively monitor and contain new cases through testing and contact tracing. But, until there is a vaccine or an effective therapuetic treatment, schools will have to modify operations to keep students and staff healthy and to prevent asymptomatic spread in their communities, Fauci told lawmakers last week

The White House guidance on "reopening the country", announced in April, calls for states to ease restrictions in a phased approach only after they ensure they have adequate testing, tracing, and hospital surge capacity and only after they've seen declining rates of the virus for 14 consecutive days, which would put them in phase one. Schools would reopen in the second phase, after an additional 14 days of declines.

The new CDC guidance also says schools that are closed should remain closed in "step 1," and that distance learning opportunities should be provided for students. In "step 2" of the CDC guidance, schools would  remain open "with enhanced social distancing measures and for children who live in the local geographic area only."  In "step 3," schools would remain open with distancing measures and "restrict attendance to those from limited transmission areas."

The draft CDC document was shelved after the agency sent it to the White House for review, the AP reported. 

After that, the agency posted "decision trees"  that show the criteria necessary to reopen businesses and schools. But those relatively simple charts, published last week, were criticized for not providing enough detail.

School finance experts say schools will face ballooning expenses as they change their operations at the direction of public health officials while also taking steps to catch students up after interrupted learning time. And those urgent needs will come as they face drastic cuts in funding while their states confront declining revenue.

Photo: Custodial workers from Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., used electrostatic disinfectant sprayers to deep clean at Wetherbee Elementary School in March. -- Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP


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