CDC considering classifying schools into color-coded zones for reopening


The Biden administration’s guidelines for reopening schools is expected to include recommendations for phased reopening based on rates of community transmission, according to a draft internal summary by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obtained by News on Thursday.

This phased approach for reopening provides recommendations for types of instruction for K-12 schools, broken down into four color-coded “zones”-full in-person, hybrid, reduced attendance and virtual-only.

The summary of the guidance obtained by News does not stipulate the rates of community spread that determine who qualifies for each zone.

K-12 Schools are in the “Blue” zone if they have low community spread, and in the “Yellow” zone, with moderate transmission. Blue and Yellow Zones are recommended to allow for a reopening with full in-person learning, with as much social distancing as possible. Schools in the “Orange” zone,  which are classified as having substantial transmission, are recommended to have hybrid learning or reduced attendance, with required social distancing.

“Red” zone schools are broken into two categories: Those that engage in regular screening testing of asymptomatic staff and students, and those that do not. “Red” zone schools that do not test should have hybrid learning or reduced attendance with mandatory physical distancing in elementary schools only; middle and high schools should be virtual-only. Schools that conduct screening testing can have hybrid learning or reduced attendance for all elementary, middle, and high schools, with required social distancing, according to the draft summary of the guidelines.

Several officials told News that these guidelines are still being finalized, and could change. Additional details could also be added to the final guidance.

For all levels of community transmission, universal mask-wearing and testing of symptomatic individuals and their close contacts is required.

As News has previously reported, the guidelines will also focus on five mitigation strategies: Universal masking; social distancing; hand-washing and respiratory etiquette; cleaning and ventilating facilities and contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine protocols. These practices are expected to be undertaken regardless of community transmission rates.

If schools put these mitigation measures in place, access to vaccinations should not be a precondition for reopening schools, the draft guidance says, which is in line with recent statements by CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. However, the draft guidance stresses that teachers should be prioritized for vaccines, and that once educators are vaccinated, schools should continue to implement these mitigation practices.

A majority of states have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to Education Week.

The draft guidance stipulates social distancing of 6 feet in schools. Some health officials, including a group from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, had previously argued 3 feet of social distance could be used for younger students.

The CDC is also expected to assert that school instruction should be prioritized over extracurricular activities and sports, regardless of the degree of testing measures implemented at schools. Color-coded “zones” will also be applied to these extracurriculars, according to the draft guidance.

The guidelines are expected to note equity concerns, and recommend that funding be targeted at addressing disparities in under-resourced communities, including the implementation of costly mitigation measures such as refurbishing ventilation systems, improving digital learning gaps, and prioritizing vaccines and testing.

Accommodations for “high risk” educators, including those with high-risk family members, could include additional virtual teaching, modifying job requirements, or adopting flexible scheduling. Ongoing virtual learning should be provided as an option for students with medical conditions, the draft guidance states.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that Walensky and her team will present the final guidelines to the public on Friday, an announcement that is expected in the early afternoon, according to two people familiar with the plan.

The White House and CDC so far have declined to comment on the draft guidelines.

The Education Department “soon after” is expected to advise on the “practical application” of the CDC guidelines, according to an Education Department email reported by News earlier this week.

This following guidance is expected to address how to use funds allocated to schools and state and local governments to make schools safer.

The Biden administration has used school reopenings to underscore the importance of passing their $1.9 trillion “American Rescue” COVID-19 relief package, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars in direct financial assistance to schools, as well as state and local relief funds to pay for additional school safety measures.

Mr. Biden’s current goal is to see “a majority of K-8 schools safely open in 100 days.” Psaki on Tuesday explained his goal targets a simple majority of schools with teachers instructing “at least one day a week” by day 100 of the Biden administration, which is April 30.

Asked to clarify this goal on Thursday, Psaki said “we certainly hope to build on that, even at 100 days, and from there…the President’s objective, is for all schools to reopen, to stay open, to be open 5 days a week, for kids to be learning, that’s what our focus is on.”

But many schools have already reopened ahead of the CDC guidance and additional federal funding for mitigation measures.  Sixty-four percent of elementary and middle school students are already seeing some in-person instruction, according to the most current data from Burbio’s School Opening Tracker, reported by  News on Tuesday.

High school students are not currently included in Mr. Biden’s reopening goal.


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