The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its school safety guidelines in a major push for in-person instruction that has teachers unions calling the change a political move spearheaded by the Trump administration that ultimately puts lives at risk.
The new guidelines stress for face-to-face instruction in communities not considered COVID-19 hotspots, which CDC Director Robert Redfield described in a Friday telebriefing as areas where the COVID-19 test positivity rate is greater than five percent. Texas’ current positivity rate is hovering at around 13 percent.
“It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall,” Redfield said. “I know this has been a difficult time for our nation’s families. School closures have disrupted normal ways of life for children and parents, and they have had negative health consequences on our youth. CDC is prepared to work with K-12 schools to safely reopen while protecting the most vulnerable.”
The new guidelines reverse course on a few of the organization’s previous guidelines and include not screening all students for symptoms, not closing down entire schools if one person tests positive and offer more guidance on the use of face masks in the classroom setting. The guidelines also provide new information on decision-making tools and checklists for parents and an FAQ for administrators.
CDC officials and officials with the U.S. Department of Education said the guidelines take into account the risks the virus poses to children and evidence that at-home learning can have detrimental effects on children’s education and their mental and emotional well-being. According to the CDC, COVID-19 poses “relatively low risks” to school-aged children compared to adults. As of July 17, children under 18 years old account for under seven percent of COVID-19 cases and less than .1 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., per the CDC.
“The research and the science continue to suggest that it is safer, healthier and better for students to be in school full time,” Dr. Mitchell Zais, Deputy Secretary of Education said during the Friday briefing. “Too many government schools already failed their students this past spring. It can’t happen again this fall.”
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The pivot toward pro-in-person instruction comes after President Donald Trump earlier this month publicly criticized the CDC’s previous recommendations, calling them “tough and expensive guidelines” that are “are asking schools to do very impractical things.”
I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2020
The Texas ATF, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, responded to the new guidelines by calling them “a public relations pitch to get as many kids back into the classrooms as soon as possible” and said the CDC is “basing its push on an agenda from the White House and dubious assertions on how kids are at minimum risk, both for themselves and their teachers and families.”
“Amazing, isn’t it, how in two-weeks time the CDC can go from an internal document noting the high risk of school reopenings to now saying it’s perfectly safe to push millions of kids back into classrooms,” Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said in a news release. “These guidelines have gone to the White House gift wrapper and are now an insulting, politically-packaged campaign piece.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement responding to the guidelines that the CDC changed its tone to “accommodate President Trump’s whims” and added that schools cannot safely reopen until more is done to contain the virus.
“The CDC could really help parents and educators by issuing a clear set of protocols and making it easier to navigate, instead of offering endless checklists that send people searching for answers,” Weingarten said in the statement.
After the Texas Education Agency extended the transition period for schools to start the year virtually from three weeks to eight weeks, several Houston-area districts opted to start the year virtually, including Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas. Shortly after the TEA extended its timeline, Harris County and Houston-area health authorities mandated that all county schools must delay in-person instruction for the first eight weeks of the 2020-21 school year.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday released a statement announcing local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders for closing schools to prevent COVID-19 spread.
“While local health authorities may possess some authority to close schools in limited circumstances, they may not issue blanket orders closing all schools on a purely preventative basis,” Paxton said in the statement. “That decision rightfully remains with school system leaders.”
From Sunday to Monday, the Houston region added 1,571 new COVID-19 cases and is now at 94,438 cases total. Harris County saw an increase of 846 new cases and is at 66,195 cases total. During that same one-day period, Texas added 4,331 new cases and is now at 395,338 new cases total, according to a Houston Chronicle data analysis.