Explained: New CDC guidelines for re-opening schools in the US

There is more evidence, which says that children so far have formed a minority of confirmed cases of COVID-19, usually contributing 1-5 per cent of the total case numbers.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday issued new guidelines for reopening K-12 (Kindergarten to 12th-grade covering ages 5-18 years) schools in the US. These guidelines have been much awaited in the country as some experts have warned of the adverse effects of remote-learning on schoolchildren. Besides, some parents also want schools to reopen.

What has CDC based its decision on?

The CDC has pointed out evidence that shows that K-12 in-person school attendance is not a primary driver of community transmission. One of these pieces of evidence is a study published in May 2020 in the journal Acta Paediatrica that says that children are unlikely to be the main drivers of the pandemic. The study noted that children may have lower viral loads and show fewer symptoms because of which transmission to adults may be reduced.

There is more evidence, which says that children so far have formed a minority of confirmed cases of COVID-19, usually contributing 1-5 per cent of the total case numbers.

Therefore, while children are equally susceptible to the virus, they are less likely to die or become severely ill, are probably less infectious and are more likely to be asymptomatic, it is possible to bring down cases of COVID-19 while keeping schools open, the CDC says.

This, however, does not mean that no cases of SARS-CoV-2 will occur in schools, but the idea is to be prepared with mitigation strategies such as universal and proper masking to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 within the community and schools.

There is also the question of requiring vaccinations before re-opening schools. A survey of 175 pediatric disease experts, which was conducted by The New York Times, concluded that vaccines are not required to re-open schools as long as there is universal masking, physical distancing, adequate ventilation in schools and avoidance of large group activities. Further, between 48-72 per cent of the experts surveyed said that the extent of virus spread in the community should not influence re-opening schools.

So, what do the CDC guidelines say?

The guidelines state some key elements of re-opening schools, which include a consistent implementation of layered mitigation strategies to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in schools, indicators of community transmission to reflect the level of community risk and the phased mitigation and learning modes based on levels of community transmission.

Other important strategies include universal and correct use of masks, physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities and contract tracing in combination with quarantine and contact tracing.

The politicisation of re-opening schools in the US

Re-opening schools during the pandemic has been a huge political issue, with former President Donald Trump pushing for their re-opening when he was still in power, while on the other hand, President Joe Biden who has consistently maintained that he wants to follow the science when it comes to the pandemic has taken a more measured approach.

During the campaign for the presidential elections, Biden had said that he will re-open schools within the first 100 days in office. But given that new strains of the virus are emerging, the Biden administration has narrowed down their ambitions to re-opening more than 50 per cent of the schools that will teach in person at least once a week by the 100th day of Biden’s presidency.

This has been criticised by some Republicans such as Kevin McCarthy who said on Twitter, “The Biden Administration’s stated goal of reopening 50% of classrooms for one day a week is unacceptable. Our students deserve more.”

The CDC, which is the foremost public health agency in the US, called for the re-opening of schools in July 2020 after Trump criticised the agency and referred to its earlier guidelines as “too tough”. Trump’s call to re-open schools was criticised by school teachers in the US who said that it would be difficult for them to protect the students and themselves.

Writing for Brookings, Jon Valant of the Brown Center on Education Policy said that CDC’s guidance on school re-opening has become so politicised that it lacks any credibility.

Further, a report prepared by the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government notes that the US education system is highly decentralised with more control resting with states and local districts. This means that even with a plan and CDC guidelines in place, the federal government cannot force schools to re-open.

Further, schools are divided into public schools that are tax-funded and private schools that are tuition-funded and students at all levels more commonly attend public schools, the report notes.

Significantly, the divide between federal, state and local responses with regard to re-opening of schools continued to be an issue, which was complicated by Trump putting pressure on CDC to downplay the risks of virus transmission in schools in September 20.

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