The scene sits at the core of tense debate across America. In the city of Atlanta’s public schools, masks cover the faces of children and teachers, desks are spaced at least 6 feet apart and students and staff are now offered Covid-19 tests each week. Classes are in session — in-person and online.
These are just some of the Covid-19 safety measures that Atlanta Public Schools adopted while welcoming students back into classrooms this year — with widespread surveillance testing being the latest development, superintendent Lisa Herring told CNN this week.
So when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also based in Atlanta, released new guidance on Friday detailing strategies for how schools can open safely during the pandemic, Herring said that she felt reassured. The safety practices within the school district were among the CDC recommendations.
“That gave us some reassurance around acknowledging that we are making decisions that are going in the right direction,” Herring said.
“There’s still perhaps a bit more that could be beneficial to us as district leaders,” in terms of resources and recommendations, she said.
The guidance comes as the Biden administration aims for more schools to safely reopen.
President Joe Biden said in a CNN town hall with Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night that he wants kindergarten through eighth grade schools open five days a week, and he thinks the nation will be near that goal at the end of his first 100 days in office.
“The loss of being able to be back in school is having a significant impact on the children and parents as well,” Biden said at the town hall in Milwaukee, his first trip outside Washington since taking office.
But not every city in the United States has been willing to open yet.
And in many communities across the country, the CDC guidelines are just the latest data point in arguments between adults who want children back in classrooms now and those hesitant to reopen due to Covid-19 risks.
A race and class debate
“Some of this debate is starting to fall along race and class lines to be honest, and that’s a sign that this equity question continues to dominate the conversation around reopening — and every parent’s perspective is valid,” said Annette Anderson, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and deputy director for the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.
Anderson was referring to how Black and Brown children are impacted more severely by coronavirus, with higher case rates, hospitalizations and virus-complications, leading to more hesitancy among their parents to reopen schools.
“Particularly for families of color, this issue around Covid cases in children is one that has to be resolved,” Anderson said. “So, the more consistent guidance that the CDC can provide in conjunction with other federal agencies over time, it’s going to start building back the trust of those families.”
The CDC guidance recommends that schools limit the spread of Covid-19 by following certain key strategies: mask-wearing, physical distancing, handwashing, keeping classrooms clean and well-ventilated, and contact tracing when someone in the school tests positive for the virus. Vaccines and testing are not among the “key” strategies the agency lays out. They are listed as “additional layers” of Covid-19 prevention.
All of those measures cost money.
The National Education Association told CNN that in order for schools to have the necessary resources to follow these mitigation strategies, the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan is needed, which includes $170 billion for K-12 school buildings and college campuses. The NEA said that such funding would support ventilation systems, personal protective equipment for students and teachers, among other Covid-19 safety tools.
So for now, some school districts see the guidance as reason to stay open, but other schools — especially if they don’t have the means to implement safety strategies — may view the guidance as a reason to stay closed.
In the Atlanta Public Schools, for instance, third to fifth graders who opted for in-person learning returned last week while sixth to 12th graders who opted for in-person learning returned on Tuesday. The district implemented a surveillance testing program that’s expected to cost up to $13 million for students and staff testing — a program that goes beyond the CDC’s key strategies, and at a cost many districts can’t afford.
Meanwhile, White House Covid-19 response team testing coordinator Carole Johnson outlined on Wednesday a $1.6 billion federal investment focused on testing, of which $650 million in funding will be for testing in schools and underserved populations.
“We need to test broadly and rapidly to turn the tide of this pandemic,” Johnson said during a briefing. “But we still don’t have enough testing and we don’t have enough testing in all the places it needs to be.”
High-risk areas face tough choices
Another point of uncertainty: In most of the country, the spread of Covid-19 is high.
The CDC still says its new guidelines provide strategies for schools to continue in-person learning, even in those Covid-19 transmission “red” zones.
“There can be some confusion there. What the guidelines are saying is that there are a number of things that you can mitigate to make it safer, regardless of what level you’re in,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Tuesday morning.
“If you look at the country, a considerable proportion are in that zone where you really have to be careful because that is a higher risk,” Fauci added.
The CDC told CNN on Monday that about 75% of counties in the United States are currently experiencing high levels of transmission, considered to be “red” zones, while an additional 14% are experiencing “substantial” levels of Covid-19 spread.
A separate CNN analysis has found that a higher percentage — up to 89% — of US children live in a county considered a red zone with high levels of transmission.
“At all levels of community transmission, the strategy provides options for in-person instruction. It is not the case that we are saying that schools that are currently open should close because they are in counties in the ‘red,'” CDC spokesperson Benjamin Haynes told CNN in an email on Monday.
“Our recommendation is that schools in red areas can, in fact, provide in-person instruction, as long as they are strictly implementing mitigation and monitoring cases in the school community.”
The CDC guidelines reference studies that suggest there is a link between levels of community transmission of Covid-19 and risk of the disease spreading to and within schools.
“School administrators, working with local public health officials, should assess the level of risk in the community and the likelihood of a case in a school facility, the likelihood that a case would lead to an outbreak, and the consequences of in-school transmission,” Haynes’ email said.
The National Education Association told CNN on Monday that it agrees with the agency’s argument that preventing Covid-19 in schools is connected to preventing spread in surrounding communities.
“Schools must be prioritized and non-essential businesses should be restricted, if necessary, to bring community rates down to a safer level,” a NEA spokesperson told CNN. “In the end, it will take the necessary resources, political will from leaders and a sense of shared responsibility from everyone in our communities to ensure we can do this safely for students.”
Herring, of Atlanta Public Schools, told CNN that the community plays a role in keeping classrooms Covid-free. “That responsibility is not just within the school but in the community,” she said.
Now the question of what the new CDC guidance means for schools — and communities — remains.
“This is an evolving conversation,” said Anderson of Johns Hopkins University.
“It will be a mistake if we, as a country, do not form this nuanced perspective going into fall of 2021,” Anderson said. “It should be at this point, we have to have an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to get to fall successfully, and we need to establish some benchmarks for what success will look like.”
Teacher vaccinations not required
But there’s already disagreement, too, about the priorities in the guidelines.
Some educators and officials stress that vaccinations should be among the main tools needed to reopen, even though supply is limited around the country. CDC guidance says vaccinations for teachers are not a prerequisite to reopening schools, but rather, an “additional” layer of Covid-19 prevention.
Biden received applause during the CNN town hall on Tuesday night when he said, “I think that we should be vaccinating teachers. We should move them up in the hierarchy as well.”
But the President noted states decide who is eligible for the vaccine, and it varies.
“The states make the decisions on who is in what order,” he said. “I can make recommendations, and for federal programs, I can do that as president of the United States, but I can’t tell the state you must move such-and-such group of people up.”
Nationwide, 28 states and Washington, DC, have started allowing all or some teachers and school staff to receive the Covid-19 vaccine so far. But in other states — such as Georgia, where Herring oversees Atlanta Public Schools — teachers are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.
“I am a superintendent in Georgia, and I interface with peers across the country and many of them have already had a chance for their educators to be vaccinated,” Herring said, adding that she is worried about educators in her district.
“But as a superintendent who has to advocate for the voices of our teachers and staff, I’ll continue to lift that as a point of opportunity for consideration,” she said. “I know that we’ve been told that vaccination is not required. But much like the surveillance testing, it’s yet another layer to add to mitigation, but it also does something for our mental and psychological wellbeing.”