(CNN) — The director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday emphasized the need for masking and other mitigation measures in order to reopen schools safely, saying “we have work to do” as teachers, students and parents continue to struggle with Covid-19’s impact on education.
“We have work to do, especially when the country remains in the red zone of high community transmission. As that transmission comes down we’ll be able to relax some of these measures, but the real point is to make sure that the science is consistent with our guidance, which is consistent to say until we can ensure that we have all those measures happening that there would — schools wouldn’t be safe,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” when pressed about why schools across the country haven’t reopened.
Walensky cited the CDC’s latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report — which showed that around 60% of high school and middle school students are reliably masked. “This has to be universal,” she said, in addition to practicing six feet of distancing and other mitigation measures.
When Tapper asked Walensky to clarify further the situation happening with schools, Walensky again emphasized mitigation strategies.
“We need to make sure that all of those steps are happening and it’s masking, it’s distancing, it’s podding and cohorting of the younger children. It is, you know, cleaning of surfaces. It’s hand washing. And it’s contact tracing and diagnostic testing in an efficient manner, in collaboration with departments of public health,” she said. “Not all schools are able to do all of those things right now, and many of those schools are in red zones. We need to make sure as we come out of the red zones and do our part as a society to get down from red to lower rates of transmission, and we need to do the work to get all of those mitigation strategies up and running in all of these schools.”
Nearly all US kids live in red zones under new CDC school guidance
Walensky’s comments come as schools across the US debate how to reopen safely, with some combining a mixture of virtual and in-person learning, and as the push to prioritize teachers for vaccinations increases.
The CDC on Friday released its long-awaited guidelines for reopening schools that focus on five key Covid-19 mitigation strategies: the universal and correct wearing of masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. Vaccines and testing are not among the “key” strategies the agency lays out, calling them “additional layers” of Covid-19 prevention.
About 99% of children in the US live in a county considered a “red” zone with high levels of Covid-19 transmission under the CDC new opening guidance, according to a CNN analysis of federal data.
The CDC guidelines recommend virtual learning for middle and high schools and hybrid learning or reduced attendance for elementary schools in these high transmission zones.
Nearly 73 million children — about 99% of the US population under the age of 18 — live in such a “high transmission” community, defined by the CDC as a county where there were at least 100 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of at least 10% during the past seven days.
“Really what we have said in our guidance is that the amount of classroom activity really depends on the amount of spread in the community. We know that the amount of disease in the community is completely reflected as to what’s happening in school,” Walensky told Tapper on Sunday. “If there’s more disease in the community, there will be more in school and that most disease in school does not come from in-school transmission but comes from outside, from into the community. So what we would advocate for is to have more kids in school as our community spread comes down.”
Fewer than 100,000 children in the US live in a county considered “low” or “moderate transmission” where the CDC recommends K-12 schools open for full in-person instruction. Most of those students live in Hawaii or Washington.
The CNN analysis used the latest federal data on new case rates and test positivity rates, published Thursday by the US Health and Human Services Department, to determine each county’s risk threshold according to CDC guidelines. Population data is from the US Census Bureau’s 5-Year American Community Survey 2019 estimates.
As of Sunday morning, there have been more than 27.5 million confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. While the seven-day average of new cases is down significantly week over week, there is still sustained community transmission of the coronavirus across the country.
Lowering teachers’ risk
Walensky said that while vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools, current CDC guidance does specify that those who are at higher risk should have virtual options.
Guidance from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices puts teachers in the 1B category, which is the same as people over age 75.
“I’m a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations, but we don’t believe it’s a prerequisite for schools to reopen,” she said.
Dr. Leana Wen said earlier Sunday that teacher vaccinations are actually essential when it comes to reopening schools, a sharp contrast from the CDC guidance put out Friday and Walensky’s comments.
“I don’t really understand why we’re even having a debate about this. Of course teacher vaccinations are essential,” Wen, a CNN medical analyst, told Abby Phillip on “Inside Politics.” “If we want students to be in school for in-person learning, the least that we can do is to protect the health and well-being of our teachers — especially as in so many parts of the country, teachers are already being made to go back to school in poorly-ventilated, cramped areas, with many students who may not always be masking and practicing physical distancing.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday that teachers’ concerns about going back to school without being vaccinated are understandable, but he hopes that the new guidance from the CDC will help alleviate them.
“There’s a lot of layering to the mitigations, George, and I think the point to make is it’s totally understandable, you know, teachers’ concerns, I mean, we appreciate that,” Fauci told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
There are myriad things that can be done to lower teachers’ risk, he said, and they are laid out in the CDC’s guidance document.
“This is the first time that it’s been put down in a document based on scientific observations and data over the last several months to a year, both in the United States and elsewhere,” Fauci said. “Part of that is to indicate and to suggest strongly that a preference be given to teachers to get vaccinated.” He added that it is not essential that all teachers are vaccinated before a school can reopen.
“That would be optimal if you could do that, but practically speaking, when you balance the benefit of getting the children back to school with the fact that the risks are being mitigated if you follow the recommendations and these new guidelines from the CDC, hopefully, I think that will alleviate the concerns on both sides,” Fauci said.
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