Legal disputes between mayors, governors and trade unions have left students and teachers in limbo.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday issued new guidance for US schools to reopen, recommending universal mask-wearing and physical distancing as key mitigation strategies to getting children back in the classroom.
The guidelines, which also emphasise the need for facility-cleaning, personal hygiene and contact tracing, are intended to give school districts a plan to bring the nation’s 55 million public school students back to classrooms without creating COVID-19 outbreaks.
“We know that most clusters in the school setting have occurred when there are breaches in mask wearing,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters, noting that the CDC was not mandating that schools reopen.
Although the guidance said vaccinating teachers should not be seen as a condition to reopen, Walensky said it can provide “an additional layer of protection”.
Officials said there is strong evidence now that schools can reopen, especially at lower grade levels.
The agency also said school reopenings should not be conditional on teachers’ access to COVID-19 vaccines, but strongly recommended US states prioritise teachers and school staff for vaccination.
School reopenings have been the focus of labour disputes between teachers unions and their districts in major US cities. In Chicago this week, after months of negotiations that included threats of a lock-out and strike, the teachers union and district reached agreement on a safety plan.
The White House said this week that a national strategy would be guided by science.
“This is free from political meddling,” Walensky said.
President Joe Biden promised to reopen most schools within 100 days of taking office on January 20. On Sunday, he said the problems arising from the continued closure of schools, including children’s mental health struggles and the exodus of parents from the workforce, have amounted to a national emergency.
Just 44 percent of US school districts were offering fully in-person learning as of December and 31 percent were operating all remotely, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which surveyed 477 of the nation’s nearly 13,000 school districts. Other districts have employed a hybrid learning model where students attend some school days in-person and some virtually.
The CDC’s phased mitigation strategy is intended to be flexible depending on the level of COVID-19 transmission in a school’s community.
In areas where the COVID-19 positive test rate is below 5 percent and there are fewer than nine new cases per 100,000 in the last seven days, schools can fully reopen and safely relax social distancing measures as long as masks are worn, Walensky said. In areas of high transmission, the agency is urging 1.8 metres (six feet) of separation in classrooms and weekly testing of students, teachers and staff.
Recent studies have shown that in-person learning has not been associated with increased community transmission, especially in elementary schools, the CDC guidance noted.