CDC recommends reopening schools based on rates of community transmission

New CDC guidelines outline a number of recommended safety measures to allow schools to reopen safely for in-person learning. However, they are not federally mandated, leaving school districts to make their own decisions. The director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Craig Spencer, joins CBSN to break down the measures.

Video Transcript

- New CDC guidelines break down a number of safety measures that if taken, should allow schools to reopen safely for in-person learning. The requirements include physical distancing and mask wearing. However, the guidelines are not federal mandates, leaving school districts to make their own decisions on returning.

Several labor unions have refused to return to class without full vaccination and testing programs. Joining us to talk more about the guidelines is director of Global Health and Emergency Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Craig Spencer. Dr. Spencer, what do you make of these new color coded guidelines, and is it clear what rates of community spread apply to each of them?

CRAIG SPENCER: Yeah, this is what the CDC is trying to do to give some really quantitative understanding of how safe it is to bring schools back in person at least partially. And this is relying on two different metrics, one being really the number of new cases per a set population, and the positivity of testing in the last seven days. And each of these pieces of information separately and then together can give you an idea of how much spread there is in the community.

We know that the likelihood of having any type of transmission in schools is likely linked to the amount of virus in the community. Meaning that if there's not a lot of virus out in the community, it's unlikely that you'll have a lot in the schools. And if there's more virus in the community it's more likely that you may have some spread in the school. So this is really just a way to help communities risk stratify, knowing how much virus there is around them to help prevent virus from actually entering into the schools.

- Schools are not required to adopt these guidelines. Should there be a difference between smaller, rural schools returning, compared to larger urban ones?

CRAIG SPENCER: You know, right now, to date, the majority of the schools that have been hit hard-- all schooling really has been hit hard. You there's been a shutdown of schooling all across the country, almost for the past year. But it has been particularly hard in urban communities, primarily those serving non-white students. And so we need to do everything we can to get everyone back in the classrooms. As we've heard so many times, schools need to be the last to close and the first to open.

Now there may be some things that are going to be done a little bit differently in an urban area versus a rural area based on space constraints, et cetera. But really the minimum, and what was put out here based on the science by the CDC, is what it is supposed to be observed everywhere. You know, universal mask wearing, contact tracing, hand hygiene, the things that we know are going to reduce transmission in schools amongst students and amongst teachers, those are going to be the same everywhere, regardless of an urban or rural.

- And we know the CDC now recommends double masking after new research found it can block nearly 93% of potentially infectious particles. Do you think this is something that applies to children returning to school as well?

CRAIG SPENCER: Well, it really depends on what you mean by children, right? The CDC wants kids two and above to be wearing masks, including I have a toddler who's two years old, who wears her mask very, very well. But a two-year-old is different than a 17-year-old. We don't know whether the face shape and really the anatomy of a younger child would really fit the advice that's being given by the CDC here.

Yes, you would imagine that a 17-year-old is much more like an adult, and that wearing another mask, wearing a cloth mask over a procedural or surgical mask, would be helpful in reducing transmission and in preventing the wearer from getting infected. I think the really most important takeaway is make sure everyone is at least wearing a mask. And if possible, to have a mask that is well fitting.

- Guidelines also do not require teachers to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. While there's no vaccine for children yet, Dr. Fauci says there may be by the fall. Do these requirements address the concerns of teachers unions concerned about the safe working conditions?

CRAIG SPENCER: OK, as someone who works on the front line and works with COVID patients all the time, I can imagine how other essential and front line workers feel being exposed and why teachers unions and teachers would want to be vaccinated before they go back in. We do have a lot of evidence to date that if the other risk mitigation strategies are put in place, so if the universal mask wearing distancing where possible, good ventilation, we know that the spread of the virus of COVID in schools is actually extremely low. Doesn't mean that it's zero, it doesn't mean that no one has been impacted or had severe disease from this, but it's much lower than in surrounding communities.

So I think that's going to have to be a discussion really based on you know, personal preference for some people. You know, a lot of people are worried that if they go back into school and they get infected, maybe they'll be OK, but they'll bring it back home to a loved one who might be immunocompromised, or to others in their community, who might not be able to-- may not be able to shake the virus.

- What advice do you have for parents who might be nervous about sending their children back to school?

CRAIG SPENCER: The advice I have is really do everything you can to talk to others in your community and your neighborhood, at your school, to have an open discussion and dialogue. I know how difficult this is. Like I said, I have a toddler and we've gone back and forth over our decision to send our daughter back to daycare.

Look, for us it was a discussion and a decision that was based on a lot of different factors. One of course, being that adults also have important things that we need to do as well. We know that this pandemic has been really hard in terms of increasing unemployment. That has been particularly hard on women. We've had millions of women leave the workforce. And many of these women are staying at home taking care of kids right now.

So it's not really just only about whether or not kids should be in person or at school, virtual or not, we also to think about the impacts that it's having on the family and on communities. And it's really important, I think, for all families at this point to try to take some time to reflect and recognize that it's been really hard on everyone the past year and you're not going through this alone. These decisions are extremely difficult.

- So many parents worried about safety, but also so anxious to get their children back in school. Dr. Craig Spencer, thank you.

CRAIG SPENCER: Thank you.