Updated on Feb. 20th at 2:57 ET
President Biden has said many times that he wants most schools to be open by his 100th day in office, April 30. And on Friday, Feb. 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines intended to help schools operate in person safely. But some argue these guidelines will do little to promote school openings.
"Wake up call to parents! If schools start following this new guidance strictly, kids are not getting back to full-time school," Joseph Allen, the director of Harvard's Healthy Buildings Program and an expert on ventilation, told NPR's Steve Inskeep. Maybe not even by next fall, he said.
Rather than pour oil on troubled waters, the administration's guidance and public statements seem to have poured an energy drink over an already intense debate — one where the relationship among school operations, COVID-19 levels and politics is far from straightforward or uniform.
Some of the confusion is coming directly from the administration. At a CNN town hall on Tuesday Biden reiterated and clarified that he's talking about grades K-8 and said, "The goal will be five days a week." This contradicted recent statements by his press secretary, Jen Psaki, that the goal was just one day a week, without specifying K-8.
Another walkback happened earlier in February, when CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said vaccinating teachers was not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools; Psaki later said Walensky had been speaking "in her personal capacity." The new, official CDC guidance, however, matches Walensky's statement, saying "access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction."
The official guidance and White House statements are also running into complicated facts on the ground.
These new guidelines — which are intended as recommendations — come almost a year into the pandemic. In that time school districts have made their own decisions about reopening, with limited federal resources. About two-thirds of U.S. students already have the option of some in-person learning, as of Feb. 14. That's according to Burbio, one of the few organizations that has been tracking school reopenings throughout the pandemic. Burbio reports that 40.8% of students have the option of traditional, in-person instruction five days a week, with the remainder having the option of a hybrid schedule.
The number of schools teaching in-person has trended upwards since last fall — well before the CDC issued its latest, data-driven guidelines — and that figure is at an all-time high right now, according to Burbio. Texas, Florida and Georgia are three big states with mostly open K-12 schools; there are lots of open schools in the middle of the country too, in states like Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas and Arkansas.
However, in many places, these currently-open schools aren't necessarily in harmony with new CDC guidance on matters like community spread, physical distancing or athletics.
Cases have been falling across the country, as the CDC's Rochelle Walensky noted at a White House briefing on Friday. Still, Burbio calculates that, as of Feb. 19, about 76% of students are enrolled in schools located in areas that fall into the CDC's "red" category, with the highest COVID-19 transmission rates.
With that many cases in the community, CDC guidelines call for hybrid learning in elementary schools; and virtual-only learning in middle and high schools, unless those schools can "strictly implement all mitigation strategies" and have "few" cases. Bottom line: Unless and until caseloads fall more sharply, most schools can't be open five days a week and still comport with CDC guidelines.
The CDC guidelines recommend physical distancing of 6 feet. That's the rationale behind hybrid schedules — they are intended to reduce class size, allowing elbow room in classrooms. But distancing is less achievable for the estimated 40% of students who have the option of in-person instruction five days a week.
Heidi Matthews is a teacher and the president of the Utah Education Association. She says, in her state, full-time in-person learning is the norm and class sizes are large.
"We can't keep our desks 6 inches apart, much less doing any sort of social distancing," Matthews tells NPR.
Bottom line: Without a huge infusion of money for more space and staffing, 6 feet apart five days a week may be out of reach.
In "red" zones — which, again, are home to three-quarters of U.S. students right now — CDC guidelines call for all sports to be virtual. With high-contact sports, like wrestling, masks can be dangerous and distancing impossible. Yet there are places around the country, like Pittsburgh and the Detroit area, and soon in parts of California, where schools are closed but kids' sports — either school leagues or independent sports — are in full swing. The Twitter hashtag #LetThemPlay tracks efforts around the country to keep youth sports going or to reopen them.
An evolving situation
The environment for school openings could improve before Biden's first 100 days are up. If community spread continues to fall quickly, more schools may be able to open, or continue to operate with few cases, and even offer more days in person. Vaccinating teachers, which is happening unevenly across states, may help with ongoing staff shortages, since the CDC says vaccinated people are no longer required to quarantine after an exposure, and since the peace of mind that comes with the vaccine may bring more teachers back into the workforce.
But equity advocates like Becky Pringle, head of the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, are warning that schools that serve more vulnerable students in low-income communities may be less able to afford what the CDC is now recommending. That could put official scientific guidance at odds with the president's message.
In short, when it comes to practices like physical distancing, quarantining, contact tracing, coronavirus testing and ventilation, the CDC has provided guidance, but there's no guarantee that schools and communities will want to — or be able to — follow its rules.