CDC releases recommendations for safely reopening schools

The CDC has released its long-awaited guidelines for safely reopening schools. It includes several mitigation strategies and does not suggest vaccinating teachers as a pre-condition. Dr. Leo Nissola, a physician and immunotherapy scientist, joined CBSN with more on the recommendations.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: The CDC has released its long-awaited guidelines for safely reopening schools. In it, the agency provides recommendations for a gradual reopening. It includes so-called mitigation strategies, like face coverings and social distancing, but does not suggest vaccinating teachers as a necessary precondition. This roadmap comes as school districts and teachers unions across the nation debate whether or not to resume in-person learning. Meanwhile, states are speeding up the vaccine rollout, but a low supply is complicating efforts. As of Friday morning, more than 69 million doses had been distributed with more than 48 million administered.

And New York City becomes the latest to loosen pandemic restrictions, limited indoor dining resumed Friday, just in time for the Valentine's Day weekend. We'll have more on the nation's fight against COVID-19 in a moment, but first, we turn to Meg Oliver for more on school reopenings.

MEG OLIVER: Tonight, the nation's schools have their roadmap for reopening safely. It's the first science-based national strategy, according to the CDC. The agency recommending a color-coded system based on community spread of coronavirus. Schools in areas with lower transmission rates are blue and yellow-- zones where in-person learning is recommended. Red zones are high transmission areas with the most restrictions. Elementary schools can remain open, while middle and high schools are recommended to go hybrid or virtual only. This is on top of safety mitigation strategies, including wearing masks, social distancing, cleaning, and contact tracing.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Today is a day of hope.

MEG OLIVER: Randi Weingarten, president of the nation's most powerful teachers union, says it's welcome news after months of teacher protests across the country.


RANDI WEINGARTEN: It's going to take that kind of trust and collaboration as a touchstone, as a key to convincing people, but it has to start with a roadmap of safety.

ADRIANNE JONES: I miss being able to see their faces--

MEG OLIVER: But some still aren't convinced, like Pre-K teacher Adrianne Jones, who refuses to return to her Philadelphia elementary school until there are more safeguards.

ADRIANNE JONES: I want to see a report that tells me that the buildings are safe to return with the ventilation, making sure that all of the other precautionary measures are in place.

MEG OLIVER: Roughly 20 million children have no access to in-person learning at public schools nationwide, and concerns over mental health are growing. So do you trust the school district?


MEG OLIVER: Maya [? McGeety ?] has one child in a Philadelphia public school. She doesn't trust the district. Do you want to send your child back into school in person?

MAYA MCGEETY: I want to, but not with the given current state of things, with the pandemic and the uncertainty of our ventilation systems.

MEG OLIVER: Other parents told us they were encouraged by today's news and want to send their kids back in person. These guidelines come as school districts, like here in Philadelphia remain in a heated debate over reopening. One major sticking point-- upgrading ventilation systems. The CDC suggests opening windows and doors and using fans, and that upgrading ventilation systems is not a priority for reopening. Lana.

LANA ZAK: Very interesting, Meg. Thank you. For more on this, I want to bring in physician and immunotherapy scientist, Dr. Leo Nissola. Dr. Nissola, thank you, first of all, for all that you do and for joining us right now. So as you just saw in Meg's report, the CDC released these new guidelines for reopening schools and they include several mitigation strategies. Remind us what we know about transmission in schools and what more you can tell us about these recommendations.

DR. LEO NISSOLA: Thank you for having me. I think we have a tremendous challenge now of reopening schools safely. I think everyone is aware of the challenge that is keeping schools closed and keeping children out of school. I think we need to understand that vaccinating our teachers should be a priority. You see, one third of American teachers are at risk of severely being affected by this disease.

So at the same time that we need to reopen our schools, we should also consider vaccinating our teachers and prioritizing them at first, especially because the spread of this virus is done mostly through indoor environments. In a school environment, the teacher goes through human contact with several other adults, not only children, so they must be protected.

LANA ZAK: Can you tell us that statistic again, about a third of teachers?

DR. LEO NISSOLA: A third of teachers in the United States are at risk of developing a severe disease.

LANA ZAK: And what is that based off of?

DR. LEO NISSOLA: Due to age. Based on the age.

LANA ZAK: Due to age, OK.

DR. LEO NISSOLA: Due to age, yeah.

LANA ZAK: Based off of the average age of Americans.

DR. LEO NISSOLA: There was a recent study, yeah.

LANA ZAK: OK, now I better understand that point there. So this Biden administration roadmap gives some guidance about how schools can open safely, but what factors really determine when that might happen?

DR. LEO NISSOLA: I think they're taking into account the multiple variables, which is very important, I think, reinforcing mitigation risks, reinforcing cleaning, mask wearing, reinforcing ventilation and making sure that the facilities that these children will go back to are clean enough and the air is not being shared by many without proper ventilation is important. I do, however, go back to the point where we have at least 10% of American teachers over the age of 60, and that puts them at a higher risk of developing the disease.

LANA ZAK: And certainly one of the things that any parent who's been at home watching their kids trying to learn over Zoom or Skype has a much deeper appreciation for all that the teachers give to our families. So why isn't vaccination

DR. LEO NISSOLA: Absolutely.

LANA ZAK: Of teachers a priority in this roadmap?

DR. LEO NISSOLA: I think it should be. I think, number one, acknowledging that essential workers are every day being exposed to the virus at a higher rate than us that are working from home. It's an important first step in acknowledging that we need to get our schools reopened and we need to get our children back to school due to so many reasons. As you mentioned, mental health is one of them. But we do need to do so safely, and I think there is no reason why we shouldn't prioritize our teachers. With new vaccines coming to the market and the supply chain being handled, I believe this is possible in the coming months.

LANA ZAK: Well, along those same lines, the FDA has agreed to let Moderna increase the number of doses in each vial of its vaccine, which is potentially great news, but are there risks potentially associated with having additional doses per vial?

DR. LEO NISSOLA: I think if the vial permits that you have more doses, I think it's a great logistical solution. The challenge, though, there is that you want to make sure that this vial is fully used when you open it. So we've had several reports of pharmacists having to run after someone to make sure that the doses of these vaccines have not gone bad or expired without the use.

I think we do still need to see a standardized vaccination platform for the distribution and delivery of those vaccines across the country. So we optimize those vials. We optimize those doses. And remember, folks that are tech illiterate have still a hard time finding those vaccine appointments. So as more and more vaccines get delivered through the community, through their pharmacies and through businesses near their house, I think we will be seeing a wider acceptance of the vaccine. However, primary care physicians in the United States are still not allowed to deliver those vaccines. They have for many, many, years done a terrific job with influenza vaccine. So I don't see why we are still not allowing primary care physicians to deliver the vaccines.

LANA ZAK: A very interesting point. Before I let you go, and I only have time for one more question, I have to ask you about indoor dining, because this is a big development in New York City, but also, as we're looking at the Valentine's Day weekend, it's potentially a boost in the economic arm of restaurants. But are you concerned about the ability of restaurants to provide a safe environment for indoor diners? And are you concerned that we might be easing up measures too soon?

DR. LEO NISSOLA: Yeah, you're right. I am concerned. Many of us are concerned. I think we understand a little bit more about this virus than we did a year ago, and what we do know is that indoor environments are perfect for getting others infected and creating super spreader events. What we are seeing with the new variants is that this virus is mutating, and every time it mutates, it creates a variant that is a little bit more tricky to protect from.

So, again, Dr. Fauci has said this multiple times, and I agree with him that every new infection is a potential for a new variant, for a new mutation. So I don't understand, still, why are we allowing indoor dining anywhere in the United States?

LANA ZAK: All right, Dr. Leo Nissola, thank you.

DR. LEO NISSOLA: Thank you for having me.