The C.D.C. Issues New School Guidance, With Emphasis on Full Reopening

The guidance acknowledges that many students have suffered from months of virtual learning.

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Emily Anthes, Sarah Mervosh and Kate Taylor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged schools on Friday to fully reopen in the fall, even if they cannot take all of the steps the agency recommends to curb the spread of the coronavirus — a major turn in a public health crisis in which childhood education has long been a political flash point.

The agency also said school districts should use local health data to guide decisions about when to tighten or relax prevention measures like masking and physical distancing. With the highly contagious Delta variant spreading and children under 12 still ineligible for vaccination, it recommended that unvaccinated students and staff members keep wearing masks.

The guidance is a departure from the C.D.C.’s past recommendations for schools. It is also a blunt acknowledgment that many students have suffered during long months of virtual learning and that a uniform approach is not useful when virus caseloads and vaccination rates vary so greatly from place to place. Some experts criticized the agency’s decision to leave so much up to local officials, however, and said more specific guidelines would have been more helpful.

School closures have been extremely divisive since the outset of the pandemic, and advising districts has been a fraught exercise for the C.D.C. Virtual learning has been burdensome not only for students but also for their parents, many of whom had to stay home to provide child care, and reopening schools is an important step on the economy’s path to recovery.

“This a big moment,” said Dr. Richard E. Besser, a former acting director of the C.D.C. “It’s also a recognition that there are real costs to keeping children at home, to keeping them out of school, that school is so important in terms of children’s socialization and development and it provides other supports as well.”

Virtually all of the nation’s major school districts plan to return to regular in-person instruction in the fall, and some are still trying to persuade hesitant parents to send their children back. Others are not giving parents a choice; New York City will not offer a remote learning option in the fall.

Not everyone seemed inclined to follow the new advice. In California, for example, state officials announced Friday that they would continue requiring masks for everyone in school settings regardless.

The C.D.C. was prompted by the national vaccination campaign, which has vastly changed the complexion of the pandemic in the United States. Erin K. Sauber-Schatz, a captain in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps who helped lead the C.D.C. task force that wrote the guidelines, said agency officials “really want to get kids back in the classroom” and believed the time was right to tailor prevention strategies to communities.

“This guidance has been written to be really flexible,” she said.

One major shift is in the recommendation for physical distancing. The agency continues to advise that students be spaced at least three feet apart, but with a new caveat: If maintaining such spacing would prevent schools from bringing all students back, they could rely on a combination of other strategies like indoor masking, testing and enhanced ventilation.

In another shift, the C.D.C. made clear that masks could be optional for vaccinated people, in line with its recommendations for the general public.

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