The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its school guidance Friday. The update adds more details to existing guidelines that will better inform administrators' decisions about opening schools and limit risk, according to CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield.
Redfield said the updated guidance is a result of discussions the CDC has been having with districts about how to best operate during a pandemic.
The updated guidelines emphasize the importance of keeping schools open if possible.
Children less at risk
"The many benefits of in-person schooling should be weighed against the risks posed by Covid-19," the guidelines said. The available evidence from countries that have reopened schools showed that Covid-19 "poses low risks to school-aged children - at least in areas with low community transmission."
It adds that in general, children are less likely to have severe symptoms than adults. The risk of teachers, school administrators and other staff will, however, "mirror that of other adults in the community" if they get sick, the guidelines said.
Schools are still encouraged to make accommodations for staff and students at higher risk for severe illness that will limit their exposure risk. Schools are also still encouraged to divide students and teachers into distinct groups, if possible, that stay together throughout the entire school day for in-person learning. Alternative schedules or staggered scheduling may also be a good idea to limit interaction.
The guidelines encourage schools to develop a protocol to monitor local Covid-19 data in the community to track levels of transmission and to make decisions about mitigation strategies and to determine if school closures may be necessary.
Keep open schools safe
Good hand hygiene is stressed. Learning stations and activities should have fewer students per group and students should be placed 6 feet apart if possible, the CDC advises.
The old guidelines encouraged the use of face coverings, but said that they might be "challenging for students." While the updated guidelines mention the challenge for some students, particularly younger students or students with asthma, it emphasizes that cloth face coverings and masks are "one of many important mitigation strategies."
The consistent use of masks is most important when students, teachers, and staff are indoors and when social distancing is difficult. People should be reminded not to touch the mask and to wash hands or use hand sanitizer frequently, the guidelines say.
Clear face coverings may be preferable for teachers of young students, for example, when they teach students how to read. Clear face coverings may also be helpful for teachers working with English language learners and for students with disabilities.
Keeping it clean
Schools are encouraged to increase the frequency of routine cleaning and disinfection.
They should also consider upgrades to ventilation system or other improvements to increase the delivery of clean air. When the weather allows, schools should open windows and increase outdoor air circulation in the school. Fans can help and schools should consider running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for two hours before and after the school is occupied. Schools, should, however, exercise caution in highly polluted areas.
A different kind of lunch
Cafeterias should avoid offering self-serve food or drinks. Meals should be individually plated or pre-packaged. Food service items like trays and utensils should be disposable if possible. If feasible, schools are encouraged to have children eat outside or in their classrooms, instead of in a communal dining hall.
Schools should provide touchless payment methods if possible, hand sanitizer near the checkout, and foot pedal and no-touch trash cans.
Schools should continue to make sure students don't share food or utensils.
Schools should limit non-essential travel and should consider postponing or canceling student international travel programs.
If staff or students use public transportation or ride sharing, they should consider transportation that minimizes close contact with others like biking or walking or riding in the car only with household members.
When someone does get sick
The CDC continues to encourage schools to work closely with local and public health leaders if there is an infected person on campus. Rather than shut everything down immediately for a long period of time, the guidelines said one option is an initial short-term class suspension and cancellation of events and after-school activities, so that public health leaders can get the time they need to determine how widespread the infections are.
When schools are using a pod system, keeping certain students together, administrators may only need to close certain parts of the building where an infected person had been. If local health officials recommend against closing the building, school leaders should thoroughly clean that area.
The decision to suspend school altogether should be made on a case-by-case basis using the most up-to-date information about the pandemic, according to the guidelines, taking into account local case counts and the degree of ongoing transmission in the community.
If a school does need to close, administrators should establish transparent criteria for when the school will suspend in-person learning to slow the spread and also have transparent criteria for when the school will re-open.
Schools are encouraged to "regularly" and "transparently" communicate with staff, teachers, students and families, including about mental health support services available at the school. Sharing facts will "counter the spread of misinformation and mitigate fear," the guidelines said.
Schools should use existing information systems for day-to-day reporting of details such as the number of cases, number of students who are absent, the number of visits to the health center.
Schools should offer remote counseling and ensure the continuity of mental health services. Schools should also encourage students who feel overwhelmed and want to harm themselves or others to call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK.
Schools should also consider posting signs in the school for the national distress hotline which is 1-800-985-5990.
The CDC also added more inclusive language to its guidelines, emphasizing that critical communications need to be accessible to individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency. It added an entire section on how schools should accommodate children with disabilities or special health care needs, encouraging a customized or individualized approach for students who may need the help.
Schools should also ensure direct service providers that work with these students have been asked if they have Covid-19 symptoms and, if they work at other schools, if there are positive cases in those classrooms.
"We owe it to our nation's children to take personal responsibility to do everything we can to lower the level of Covid-19, so that we can all get back to school safely," Redfield said. "Schools provide a safe environment for kids and grandkids to learn and grow academically, socially, emotionally, but schools are not islands in and of themselves. They are connected to the communities that surround them."