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New COVID Guidelines Clearer But NOT Uncontroversial

February 16, 2021

With a change in the White House, there is a change in tactics in terms of providing direction for the mitigation of COVID-19 and some clearer guidelines on whether schools should open or not. But while the guidelines are clearer, they are not COMPLETELY clear… and whether they will result in more uniformity across the country remains an open question.

The NYTimes reporters Dana Goldstein and Kate Taylor provided a comprehensive overview of the changes at the federal level in a recent article “What You Need to Know about the CDC’s New School Guidelines“. Here are some quotes that underscore the lack of COMPLETE clarity. For example, in response to the question about whether parents would be able to determine if their local schools would open or not, the respose was:

Sort of. You can look up your community’s test positivity rate and the number of new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days (these numbers are often available on state or county websites, though you might need to do some math to get the rate per 100,000 people), then compare the agency’s policy recommendations for that level of transmission with what your school is doing. But the guidelines acknowledge that some schools have been safely open at higher levels of community transmission than the recommendations advise.

And as to the question of whether the new guidelines will compel more districts to open:

It’s hard to say. In many districts that remain closed, labor issues are the major barrier to reopening. Some local teachers’ unions are demanding teacher vaccination, accommodations to allow teachers with vulnerable relatives to continue working from home, and more stringent safety measures in buildings. But the guidelines might help districts and unions reach consensus by pointing to established research on how to operate schools safely during the pandemic.

And the doctors’ reaction? If you guessed “mixed” you’re right!

They were greeted warmly by many coronavirus experts, who have long argued that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen amid the pandemic. Some were puzzled, however, by the lack of emphasis on air quality, and what they said was a misguided focus on cleaning surfaces, given that experts now believe that the virus is largely transmitted through the air.

Others said they thought the thresholds for opening middle and high schools were too restrictive, noting that some schools have operated safely through the pandemic at higher levels of community transmission.

And the union’s reaction? Yes… mixed!

Both of the national unions said they were pleased to see the C.D.C. release clear, detailed guidelines based on science. But both had some concerns.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has more strongly emphasized the importance of in-school virus testing. And Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, echoed expert concerns about the guidelines’ lack of emphasis on air quality. She was also not happy about what she perceived as wiggle room in the language on physical distancing, which left the impression that six feet was ideal, but not strictly required.

And do the guidelines give administrators and school boards some clear guidance in terms of mask wearing and social distancing?

Only vaguely. The C.D.C. says that mitigation strategies will need to continue “until we better understand potential transmission among people who received a Covid-19 vaccine and there is more vaccination coverage in the community.” Many experts believe that some precautions, like masks, will be warranted until all students are vaccinated; there are currently no vaccines approved for children.

Whether schools will need to continue to enforce social distancing or keep students in small cohorts is less clear. A model that examines the effects of different mitigation strategies in schools predicts that vaccinating teachers will have a significant effect in reducing transmission, possibly making distancing and keeping students in cohorts less important.

So are teachers, students. parents, administrators, and school boards better off with these clear federal guidelines? Here’ how the NYTimes writers see it:

The new guidelines are significantly clearer; they could be read as being more strict, but they also discuss evidence that schools can open safely at any level of community transmission. The previous guidelines suggested that schools use similar indicators of community transmission to make decisions about whether to open, but provided limited guidance. Both the earlier recommendations and the new guidance allow schools flexibility to make decisions based on individual factors.

And here’s how I see it: the new guidelines are ABSOLUTELY BETTER! By issuing clearer guidelines rooted in research and providing some degree of state and local control, the Biden administration has artfully threaded the needle. With clearer FEDERAL guidelines, state legislators and residents in each state have a basis for determining if their state is taking the right action in opening schools. By providing guidance on masks and social distancing the federal government provides sufficient support to unions who insist on safety measure and comfort to parents who fear their children will be needlessly exposed to COVID.

Are the guidelines perfect? ABSOLUTELY NOT! But the mitigating factors that make the guidelines blurry, the “but statements” that are bold and italicized, suggest the door is open to changes if additional scientific evidence is forthcoming. One thing IS clear, the Biden administration is willing to lead on this issue and provide a clearer direction for states and local school districts…. and THAT is a great improvement.

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