CDC fine print: Reopening schools may ‘increase transmission risk’

Posted at 2:20 PM, Jul 27, 2020

The fine print of newly released federal guidelines for reopening schools raises serious questions about whether in-person classes should resume at a time when COVID-19 rages around much of the country.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), under pressure from the White House, released a position paper highlighting “the importance of reopening America’s schools this fall.”

But separate guidelines issued for K-12 school administrators, which drew less public attention, are much more cautious.

“It is important to consider community transmission risk as schools reopen,” those CDC guidelines state.

“Computer simulations from Europe have suggested the school reopenings may further increase transmission risk in communities where transmission is already high.”

The new CDC guidelines suggest, “If community transmission levels cannot be decreased, school closure is an important consideration.”

“Plans for virtual learning should be in place in the event of a school closure.”

In Tennessee, several public and private schools are preparing to reopen even as almost every county in the state is showing what the Department of Health considers to be unacceptable rates of transmission of the coronavirus.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a dramatic clarification of its statement back in June that "all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school."

"This does not mean that we recommend that all schools open five days a week from the start of the school year," the academy’s Dr. Sean O'Leary told a congressional committee.

“Many parts of the country are currently experiencing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. While the AAP urges those areas to make in-person learning as the goal, we recognize that many jurisdictions will need to utilize distance learning strategies until cases decline."

The vice chair of the academy's committee on infectious diseases, O'Leary told the subcommittee that, where there is uncontrolled community transmission, "it's inevitable that the virus is going to get into the schools, and schools are going to have to shut down."

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams also told CBS This Morning last week that a community's COVID-19 transmission rate is the single most important determinant of whether schools can safely reopen.

School reopening advocates point to the emotional, psychological and educational importance of children being in the classroom – a position that the CDC guidelines reaffirm.

“Schools provide safe and supportive environments, structure and routines for children, as well as other needed support services to children and families,” the CDC notes.

Children are less likely to become ill when infected with the virus, and younger children are less likely to transmit the virus to others, the report adds.

But a large-scale study out of South Korea recently reported that children ages 10-19 -- middle- and high-school ages -- can spread the virus as easily as adults.

In addition, a new study – shared by the Tennessee Department of Health last week on Twitter – concluded that “young, previously healthy adults can take a long time to recover from COVID-19.”

“The study found nearly one in five adults ages 18-34 who had milder outpatient COVID-19 had not returned to their usual health after 14-21 days,” the Department of Health tweeted.

Many high school seniors are 18 years old.

The CDC guidelines also encourage schools to implement practices called cohorting (or pods) “where a group of students (and sometimes teachers) stay together throughout the school day to minimize exposure for students, teachers and staff across the school environment.”

It notes that, “in middle and high school settings, cohorting of students and teachers may be more challenging.”

“However, strategies such as creating block schedules or keeping students separated by grade can help to keep smaller groups of students together and limit mixing,” the CDC suggests.

If a student or teacher does test positive, “those in the same cohort/group should also be tested and remain at home until receiving a negative test result or quarantine.”

The CDC also said reopening schools should also include commitments to “notification when there are COVID-19 cases in the school.”

This story originally reported by Phil Williams on