CDC COVID-19 advice tells schools to wash hands, wear masks, don’t touch. But not when to close

School districts across California continue to debate how and when to reopen — if they should at all.
School districts across California continue to debate how and when to reopen — if they should at all.

Parent check-list for back-to-school: Label your child’s face mask with permanent marker. Have them practice putting on and taking off their mask without touching the cloth. Make a labeled, resealable plastic bag to store their mask for during lunch time. 

Those are among the suggestions the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has for school administrators and parents as families prepare for school to resume in the fall.

Students should wear masks, wash their hands frequently and socially distance to protect against COVID-19 as schools reopen this fall, CDC urged in new guidance documents to administrators published Thursday.

“It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield in a release.

“I know this has been a difficult time for our Nation’s families. School closures have disrupted normal ways of life for children and parents, and they have had negative health consequences on our youth. CDC is prepared to work with K-12 schools to safely reopen while protecting the most vulnerable,” he said. 

Masks are just one of the areas CDC covers in its guidance. Cloth face coverings are likely to be a major lightening rod for differing views on what’s necessary or appropriate in schools, just as they have become in the larger society.

Some parents don’t want their children to wear masks, some states require them.

More: Back to school? Most major schools are heading toward online class as COVID-19 cases spike

More: California Gov.: Distance learning for schools in counties with high coronavirus numbers

More: Online school? In-person? How parents are making their own fall 2020 decisions as COVID-19 squabbles continue

CDC, the nation’s top public health agency, has faced considerable political pressure from President Donald Trump and others to get schools reopened. Public health experts have pushed back, urging caution. Community transmission levels of COVID-19 are key to reopening schools, they say, and in many parts of the country they continue to rise even as officials plan for school reopenings.

To get kids back in the classroom, CDC offered general advice, including:

  • Masks for nearly everyone, including, as feasible, special education students.

  • Limiting or canceling participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible. 

  • Repurposing unused or underutilized school spaces, including outdoor spaces, to facilitate social distancing.

  • Developing plans for what to do when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19

  • Creating smaller cohorts or “pods” within schools to minimize contact between students. This can also be accomplished by staggering when students use the facilities.

A key consideration for school administrators, CDC said, was COVID-19 transmission rates in their communities. But the CDC guidance offered no specific metrics for what transmission rates would require specific actions.

A USA TODAY analysis on Thursday showed the country’s biggest school systems are in far worse shape than they were this spring, as the school year waned toward a closing. In all, 11 of the 15 largest U.S. school systems are in communities adding COVID-19 cases at more than three times the rate they were in the two weeks ending May 1.

Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward school systems are in counties adding COVID-19 cases more than twice as fast as New York City was by May 1. USA TODAY analyzed per capita data from Johns Hopkins University.

The new CDC documents link to guidelines from May 27 that offered levels of mitigation required at different levels of COVID-19 transmission in the community, from “no to minimal community transmission” to “substantial, uncontrolled transmission.” However neither gave specific numbers or percentages of positive tests for any of those levels. 

In communities where there is substantial, uncontrolled transmission, schools should work closely with local health officials to decide whether schools should close, the guidance said.

A single case of COVID-19 in a school isn’t a reason to close an entire school, the document said. If transmission rates for the virus are higher than in the surrounding community, or the school itself is the source of an outbreak, administrators should work with local health officials to determine if a temporary closure is necessary.

Previous CDC recommendations had suggested dismissing school for at least two to five days after an infected person is in the building. 

The CDC also published a decision-making checklist for parents, caregivers and guardians to help them decide between in-person and virtual learning. It is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. 

Many schools won’t re-open

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike, the prospect of reopening schools in-person is looking increasingly unlikely in much of the nation.

As of late Wednesday, 11 of the top 15 school systems by enrollment plan to start the fall semester online or in a hybrid of in-person and online classes, according to Education Week magazine’s reopening tracker. Other top districts shifted school schedules later, hoping for cases to decline or for teachers and administrators to have more time to plan for the school year.

Still, many U.S. schools are persisting with plans for in-person courses.

They’re releasing plans that include implementing social distancing, closing school buildings to visitors and, in some cases, splitting students into groups that attend school on some days and study from home on others – in line with CDC recommendations. 

What the plans don’t say: how a school would handle coronavirus infections across the building, and how many infected students or teachers would raise alarms.

The vague plans go against advice from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which said clear thresholds should be established before the school year begins about the conditions that would force schools to close again. (link: 

One exception is California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom issued guidance Friday that schools must remain remote until their county has been off the state’s “watch list” for 14 days. He laid out in detail when classrooms and schools would have to close if there is an outbreak.

A classroom would have to close and the students and teacher would quarantine for 14 days if any of them tested positive for the virus. If the school reports multiple cases, or 5% of students and staff test positive within this 14-day period, the entire school should revert to distance learning.

USA TODAY Network reporters reviewed 35 schools’ reopening plans. Most plans didn’t include specifics on decisions that would lead to closing school buildings and putting learning online for all students. 

Nationally known immunology expert Barry Bloom, a professor of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, said he would gladly have his grandchild go back to school, but only if there were reason to believe the rate of COVID-19 community transmission were under control. 

His requirements would be that fewer than 8% of COVID-19 tests in the community were positive or under 10% of blood tests were seropositive.

“If not, I would wait till the numbers go down.”

Contributing: Elinor Aspegren

In a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School on July 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
In a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School on July 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CDC COVID-19 guidelines for schools: Wash hands, wear masks, don’t touch

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