The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will release guidelines on how to safely reopen schools this week, according to CNN, and President Joe Biden says he plans to follow their guidance.
Before taking office, Biden pledged to reopen schools within the first 100 days of his presidency — a promise that is now complicated, given that teachers’ unions are largely opposed to a return to in-classroom learning without very specific conditions, and teachers’ unions were also some of the largest donors to Biden’s campaign.
The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said last week that schools can safely reopen without vaccinating teachers against COVID-19, echoing comments that a CDC research team made in the Journal of the American Medical Association the week before, noting that, after months of tracking data about coronavirus in schools, researchers could find evidence of only “scant transmission.”
“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,” Dr. Walensky told reporters during a COVID-19 response team press conference last Wednesday. “Vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools.”
“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” the CDC’s researchers said in their JAMA article. “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
“The conclusion here is with proper prevention efforts … we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,” the study’s lead author added. “We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year but the data has really accumulated.”
The White House, likely aware that teachers unions like the one in Chicago were demanding all educators be vaccinated before returning to classrooms, told reporters last week that Dr. Walensky was speaking in her “personal capacity” and claimed that the CDC had yet to release any information guiding in-person learning.
“They have not released their official guidance yet from the CDC on the vaccination of teachers and what would be needed to ensure the safe reopening of schools,” White House press secretary Psaki said. “The president himself has talked about the importance and priority of vaccinating teachers.
Over the weekend, in an interview with NBC’s Norah O’Donnell, Biden agreed that the CDC plans to issue clear guidance this week.
“You have to have fewer people in classrooms. You have to have ventilation systems that have been re-worked,” Biden told O’Donnell in the pre-Super Bowl interview. “Our CDC commissioner is going to be coming out with science-based judgment within I think as early as Wednesday to lay out what the minimum requirements are.”
Biden did not address whether he believed the CDC director’s comments from last week represented non-science based judgment.
Fox News notes that the CDC has had clear guidelines for reopening schools for some time and that the Biden administration appears to be ignoring those guidelines in favor of new recommendations that may smooth over its conflicts.
The president failed to mention, however, that CDC guidelines on schools reopening have been available for months. In mid-September — nearly two months before the 2020 presidential election — the agency released “Indicators for School Decision-Making.”
The recommendations created a five-tiered risk assessment based on the number of new cases per 100,000 persons within the previous 14 days, and the percentage of positivity rates in the same timeframe.
The CDC said that a school falling into a “medium,” “higher,” or “highest,” risk category did not necessarily mean that the school shouldn’t reopen for in-person learning, only that the school should use “alternative learning models” like a hybrid learning.
Teachers’ unions, however, are already sounding off about the CDC’s vaccine recommendations. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says the union will continue to push for the shots if districts cannot guarantee teacher safety.
“Vaccinations go from a priority to essential if you can’t do some of these basic mitigation strategies,” Weingarten said, according to PBS. “Rather than keep these schools closed for months, why not vaccinate teachers more quickly?”