School & District Management

6 Big Questions Superintendents Are Asking About the CDC Guidance

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 17, 2021 7 min read
President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. on Feb. 11, 2021. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, Feb. 12, released long-awaited guidance telling schools what measures are needed to teach in-person during the pandemic. Biden requested the updated guidance in response to complaints that the CDC’s school guidelines under the Trump administration were unclear and inconsistent.
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Superintendents continue to wrestle with the finer points about opening schools and how to put into action the lengthy guidance released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Close to 400 district leaders today attended a conference call hosted jointly by federal officials and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, to press the CDC for more information.

The guidance suggests many schools can open with proper precautions. It puts a particular emphasis on masking and physical distancing among five key virus mitigation strategies, which also include hand-washing, cleaning and disinfecting, and contact tracing and isolation for exposed staff and students.

But superintendents looking for the how-to guide of their dreams will be disappointed.

The CDC guidelines are not a mandate, and decisions about reopening and how to use the guidelines are still in the hands of local district leaders and health agencies, said Greta Massetti, a senior scientist at the CDC. She took questions alongside Donna Harris-Aikens, senior advisor for policy and planning at the U.S. Department of Education.

“The core idea is that [the guidance] is not intended to close schools that are already open for in-person instruction, nor mandate that schools reopen,” Massetti said.

More guidance is available and forthcoming. An Education Department document released concurrent with the CDC guidelines gives examples of strategies some districts have used that could work for others, and the agency plans another volume in March that will include information on students’ social-emotional and mental health needs, learning loss, and equity concerns among other topics, the federal officials said.

Here are six of the core issues that continue to worry superintendents and other district leaders in the wake of the guidance.

What do we do if we can’t meet the recommendations for six feet? What does physical distancing “to the greatest extent possible” mean?

Variations on this question were far and away the most frequently asked on the conference.

Some superintendents mused whether five or four feet would be sufficient; others queried if they could go lower with other protections, like plexiglass barriers between desks. A major area of concern for superintendents remains lunch hour, when students must remove their masks in order to eat.

The federal officials said that, at low and moderate levels of community spread, school districts should think of ways to maximize space to the extent possible, and minimize interaction by forming small cohort groups of students and teachers, whether grouped by classroom, grade-level, or some other criterion.

“If you can’t arrange desks within classrooms all six feet apart, maybe make sure that … there are fewer of those close contacts during the day, and when you can, minimize interaction between cohorts and pods however you might define them,” Massetti said. “It could be a whole grade level, it could be a classroom. There’s also greater opportunities to ensure teachers are staying a full six feet apart. That way you’re really maintaining those firewalls between pods … Where can you introduce space where you can? Are there strategies for removing unnecessary or any unessential furniture in classrooms?”

In areas where there are substantial and high levels of community spread, the CDC recommends maintaining the six-foot distance because of the increased likelihood of transmission due to close contact.

What little research exists on high levels of community spread, coupled with less than six feet of physical distancing, is contradictory, Massetti said. A few studies seem to find little to no transmission even at lower distances, while others conclude that outbreaks can happen.

“We need more data. If places are having a good experience, we’d be happy to partner to inform our guidance going forward,” she said.

What do we do when the CDC recommendations conflict with other state guidance?

Local, state, and federal health guidelines can be incongruous if not downright contradictory, some of the superintendents noted. And sometimes they are also divorced from other policy pressures. . More states, for instance, are now taking a prescriptive approach and demanding that districts reopen. Federal officials acknowledged those difficulties, though they did not have much to offer in the way of solutions.

“This is one of those places that continues to be sticky,” Harris-Aikens said. “In our guidance we encourage those in the education system to stay in continuous partnership with local health officials. … I’m not quite sure how you would square it if there is different guidance coming from local health officials, versus from your state health officials, and the CDC.”

Can the CDC give us more information about ventilation?

After their release on Friday, the new guidelines were criticized by some health experts for not treating the issue of school ventilation in more depth, especially given the age of many U.S. school buildings. (The term “ventilation” appears only twice in the guidelines, while the term “distancing” is referenced more than 50 times.)

Superintendents previously interviewed by Education Week have listed ventilation upgrades, particularly the installation and maintenance of high-efficiency particulate air or HEPA filters, as a major cost caused by the pandemic.

The federal leaders referred to this CDC resource page about building ventilation, which outlines steps to improve air flow, central air filtration, and steps for rooms that cannot be easily ventilated.

See Also

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, left, feels for airflow from a ventilation unit inside a classroom at Bronx Collaborative High School, during an August visit with Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, to review health safeguards in that city's schools.
New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, left, feels for airflow from a ventilation unit inside a classroom at Bronx Collaborative High School, during an August visit with Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, to review safeguards against COVID-19 in city schools.
Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

Will there be any changes coming to the guidance on close contacts?

Some superintendents noted that while they have had few actual positive cases, the protocols for quarantining after a “close contact” with an infected person or suspected case are forcing schools to close because they don’t have enough staff on hand to fill classrooms.

The federal officials suggested improving the monitoring of the remaining four key mitigation strategies and what they learn can inform improvements, such as increasing masking compliance and minimizing teacher interactions. Massetti underscored that research suggests that more COVID-19 spread occurs from adult to adult in a classroom than adult to student or vice versa, or student-to-student.

“Are we really doing masking as well and as consistently we can? Are there any places we can tighten up? Can we minimize teacher interactions? Can we close down the teacher lunchroom?” she suggested.

And if someone does test positive, it’s time to strictly follow the isolation protocols. “As soon as we have a signal that there’s a case, it’s like a fire; you want to ... try to tamp it out before it gets out of control and leads to a school closure,” she said.

Will the guidance need to change because of concerning news about multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children? What about more-contagious COVID-19 variants?

The syndrome, known as MIS-C, is an inflammatory disease that can result in fevers, rashes, and heart conditions.

“At this point in terms of the MIS-C trends, our read of the data is that those are still very fortunately very rare occurrences, but we will need to adjust our guidance if that changes, or if our assessment of risk changes,” Massetti said. “In some communities if the novel variant becomes a predominant variant, that will drive rates of community transmission very high and very rapidly.”

The CDC is monitoring those developments, but if cases and transmission rates rise, she said, it will be more important than ever to try to maintain six feet of social distancing.

Is there a recommended percentage for how much we should be screening or testing students and staff?

While acknowledging that districts have had different capacities to do asymptomatic testing, Massetti recommends that districts prioritize teachers.

“Our guidance recommends at all levels offering screening testing to teachers at least weekly. That’s a minimum given high risk of severe disease among teachers compared to students,” she said. “If schools are able to consider more than once a week, that’s kind of an added layer.”

The CDC doesn’t currently specify a proportion of teachers, or whether districts should test all teachers or a random subsample.

For students, the agency recommends weekly, asymptomatic testing starting at moderate levels of community transmission. They can consider pooled testing or choosing random subsamples of 10 percent of students.

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Catherine Gewertz, Senior Contributing Writer contributed to this article.

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