Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN Sunday that teachers do not to be vaccinated in order to return to classrooms but suggested that schools would need to require “universal masking” in order to safely return to in-person learning.
“I’m a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations, but we don’t believe it’s a prerequisite for reopening schools,” Walensky told host Jake Tapper, echoing recommendations made several weeks ago, but couched her observation by claiming schools could not be completely safe until vaccination rates were much higher.
“We have in the guidance clear language that specifies that teachers that are at higher risk,” she said. “Teachers and students that are higher risk, and their families, should have options for virtual activities, virtual learning, virtual teaching.”
In a similar interview with Fox News Sunday, Walensky claimed that safe in-person learning would also require mandatory, universal masking for students.
“We are advocating with the strict mitigation measures, including universal and mandatory masking as well as six-foot of distancing, that at least our K-5 children should be able to get back to school at least in a hybrid mode,” she said.
“It’s a layered mitigation approach,” Walensky added. “And what we’ve put forward in this guidance is the roadmap to get us there.”
The CDC released guidelines for reopening schools safely on Friday, calling the new recommendations “science-based” and free from “political meddling” — sentiments echoed by President Joe Biden in a statement accompanying the CDC’s release.
“These scientific guidelines tell us that our schools are safer when we have appropriate distancing in classrooms and on school buses, when masks are worn consistently and properly, when handwashing occurs regularly, and when we are able to effectively respond to cases through testing and contact tracing, and when we follow other recommended steps,” the president noted.
Critics were quick to point out, however, that the CDC seemed to be acquiescing to teachers unions who, in many large districts, are demanding all teachers receive COVID-19 shots before they’re sent back into classrooms. Instead of setting strict vaccine requirements — something the CDC has maintained is not necessary for a return to in-person learning — critics maintain that the CDC has created near-impossible standards for safe classrooms, including a universal masking mandate, and a requirement that students be placed six feet from each other.
CNN host Jake Tapper pushed back on Walensky at the end of her interview Sunday, pointing out that the stringent guidelines mean that schools could likely never fully reopen even though evidence weighs in favor of schools being safe.
“I have to say, I feel a little dispirited after this conversation,” Tapper told Walensky, “because I had high hopes that schools would be able to resume in-person learning because so many scientists and health officials, including you and Dr. Fauci and others, have been talking about the science supports opening the schools as much as possible.”
“I know that teachers are very concerned, and I know the teachers unions have been pushing back on this, but it sounds to me like you’re asking for one hundred percent mask compliance and a number of measures that we’re never going to be able to achieve, and that makes me feel like, boy, the schools are never going to reopen until everybody’s vaccinated.”
Walensky insisted that the guidelines were “directly related to how much disease is in the community.”
Tapper noted that “99% of American children” are in the CDC’s “red zones” but that many schools are already open for in-person learning at least part time, leaving Walensky scrambling to explain.