New CDC Guidelines for K-12 Schools May Send More Students Back to Classrooms

Marcella Slay

Associate Editor

Loyola University School of Law, JD 2021

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) released revised guidelines regarding physical distancing in K-12 schools. Originally, the CDC recommended that students should stay six feet away from each other in a classroom with mask but now recommends at least three feet between students in classrooms. These new guidelines will encourage more schools to return to the classroom around the nation.

Previous CDC guidelines

Before recent changes, the CDC recommended six feet between all students within the classrooms and maintain physical barriers between students. It is also highly recommended for schools to consistently implement layered prevention strategies to reduce COVID-19 transmission in schools such as universal and correct use of masks, physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities and contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine. In developing a reopening strategy, the school must engage the entire school community to establish a safe environment for all educators, school staff, and students and promote trust and confidence. There are guidelines on proper mask wearing, handwashing, and respiratory etiquette. Masks are to be worn by all students, teachers, and staff.

The CDC has also provided extensive guidelines regarding sanitation and ventilation practices within schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Slowing the spread also involves contact tracing, quarantine periods, and isolation as necessary. The CDC believes  schools should collaborate with the local health department, to the extent allowable by privacy laws and other applicable laws, to confidentially provide information about people diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19. Although schools play a unique and critical role in society, the CDC advises administration to look at their community transmission data when deciding to conduct in-person instruction. To assess community transmission, the CDC advised the use of the following two measures: the total number of new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days, and percentage of nucleic acid amplification tests (“NAATs”), including RT-PCR tests, that are positive during the last seven days. The transmission rates are defined by the following: low, moderate, substantial, and high. The higher the level of community transmission, the more likely that COVID-19 will be introduced into the school facility from the community, which could lead to in-school transmission if prevention strategies are not in use.

Revisions to current guidelines

On March 19, 2021, the CDC released revisions to its K-12 School guidelines. The main revisions relate to physical distancing in classrooms, ventilation clarifications, removed physical barriers recommendations, cluster intervention guidance, and community transmission levels clarification. The new guideline regarding physical distancing within the classroom for students is they must remain at least three feet apart rather than the initial six feet recommendation. This applies for all K-12 students, regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate or substantial. In communities where transmission is high, the CDC recommends that middle school and high school students remain at least six feet apart if staying in designated groups is not possible. There are still other scenarios where students must remain six feet apart such as during times when masks are not worn and during sports and exercise activities. The CDC also still recommends six feet physical distancing between adults and students.

The updated guidance comes after a new article released by the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggested public schools could safely reopen as long as kids were three feet apart and other mitigation measures were enforced. The new recommendations represents a turn away from the once restricting guidelines which made it less feasible for many students to return back in person. Some states have disregarded the CDC’s guidelines regarding physical distancing in the past and established their own three feet distance policy. Several other organizations such as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended three feet distancing as safe. Many schools had traditionally had around twenty five students per classroom which led to schools creating alternating schedules for in person learning. With the new guidelines, more schools will feel comfortable returning in-person.

Current status of in-person teaching around the country

Since the announcement of the revised guidelines, some schools have already announced new plans for reopening. New York City announced that it would give families another chance to select in-person instruction for their children. The president of the Board of Education in Maryland has stated the new guidelines will make it easier for the district to achieve the superintendent’s goal of getting students on a four-day-a-week schedule before the end of the year. The new guidelines are definitely a game changer for schools across the nation and will lead to more schools reopening soon.

After the previous studies published that three feet distancing is safe, many schools began using this standard. For weeks, federal officials have acknowledged that some school districts would be unable to meet the three-feet guideline laid out by the CDC. The CDC cited new research from schools spacing desks more than three feet apart “because of limited space,” researchers found little transmission “despite high community incidence.” President of the American Federation of Teachers has said he is holding his judgment on the new recommendations given the concerns expressed by educators. While some believe the new recommendations will open more schools, some are still uncertain.