Hours after new CDC guidance for schools released, teachers give nod of approval

Safia Samee Ali and Corky Siemaszko

CHICAGO — A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention roadmap for reopening the nation’s schools during the Covid-19 pandemic got a passing grade Friday from powerful teachers unions.

“Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “For the first time since the start of this pandemic, we have a rigorous road map, based on science, that our members can use to fight for a safe reopening.”

Calling the CDC’s proposals “an informed, tactile plan,” Weingarten said it “has the potential to help school communities around the country stay safe by defining the mitigation and accommodation measures, and other tools educators and kids need, so classrooms can once again be vibrant places of learning and engagement.”

Weingarten’s organization is one of many labor groups that have been highly critical of the Trump Administration’s chaotic pandemic response.

“Of course, this set of safeguards should have been done 10 months ago,” said Weingarten, adding that the AFT released recommendations in April similar to those in the CDC plan. “Instead, the previous administration meddled with the facts and stoked mass chaos and confusion.”

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, called the roadmap “a good first step.”

“Schools should be the safest place in any community,” Pringle said in a statement. “Now that we have clearer CDC guidance, state and local decision makers need to be able to look educators, students, and parents in the eyes and ensure that with full confidence.”

Still, Pringle said, many schools “attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students” lack “the basic protections that the CDC has said are universally required.”

“If they are applied universally in every community and the resources are put in place equitably for all students, our school buildings will be safe for in-person learning,” Pringle said.

The CDC said schools can safely reopen as long as certain precautions are in place, raising hopes that students may soon return to classrooms in school districts that have not had in-person education for over a year because of the pandemic.

In its 35-page guide, the CDC reiterated the need for masking, handwashing, contact tracing and social distancing to prevent virus spread.

It also stressed that the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible, and it included a color-coded chart to help administrators decided what kind of learning is safest based on the rates of new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests.

“Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,” the CDC said. “K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.”

It also made clear that while states should prioritize teachers for vaccination, it is not a prerequisite for reopening.

That has been a sticking point in crowded, urban school districts like Chicago, which is the nation’s third largest and where many teachers have made it clear they won’t return to the classroom until they’ve received the Covid-19 vaccination.

“I’m happy that they are giving priority to teachers, under the previous timeline that wasn’t the case,” said Diana Muhammad, 38, a physical education and dance teacher at the Beasley Academic Center on the city’s South Side. “Even if it’s not required, at least we are now a priority on the list.”

Vaccinations remain a top concern, a recent NEA poll of 3,300 educators found. Just one in five had received a shot, it found, and 85 percent of respondents said teachers should be prioritized for vaccines. And 70 percent said they would feel safer working in-person if they were vaccinated.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of having more than 50 percent of the nation’s schools reopened by the 100th day of his presidency. And the most recent numbers from Burbio, a data service that audits school opening information, suggests the goal is attainable.

Forty-one percent of elementary and high school students are already back in school, getting traditional in-person instruction everyday, according to Burbio’s figures. About 25 percent are doing a hybrid of in-person and virtual education. And 34 percent of K-12 students are currently getting a “virtual only” education.

Unlike his predecessor, Biden has not pressured reluctant school districts to reopen classrooms. Former President Donald Trump harshly criticized earlier CDC guidelines, calling them “impractical” and “expensive” and threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that refused to reopen.

It was an empty threat. Trump had no authority to cut off funding that lawmakers had already allocated to schools, the spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee said at the time.

Samee Ali reported from Chicago and Siemaszko from Montclair, New Jersey.