CDC recommends U.S. schools reopen with universal masking and other rigid health protocols

FILE PHOTO: English Language Program teacher Marlon Henriquez and bilingual teacher at Pilsen Community Academy Daniela Lugo prepare for a car caravan of supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union, as negotiations with Chicago Public Schools continue over a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) safety plan agreement in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 30, 2021. REUTERS/Eileen T. Meslar/File Photo/File Photo

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday issued new guidance for U.S. schools to reopen, recommending universal mask-wearing and physical distancing as key mitigation strategies to getting children back in the classroom.

The guidelines, which also emphasize the need facility-cleaning, personal hygiene and contact tracing, are intended to give school districts a pathway to bring the nation’s 55 million public school students back to school without sparking COVID-19 outbreaks.

“With the release of this operational strategy, the CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed road map for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters

The agency said school reopenings should not be conditional on teachers’ access to COVID-19 vaccines, but strongly recommended U.S. states prioritize teachers and school staff for vaccination.

President Joe Biden promised to reopen most schools within 100 days of taking office on Jan. 20. On Sunday, he said the problems arising from the continued closure of schools, including children’s mental health struggles and the exodus of parents from the workforce, have amounted to a national emergency.

Just 44% of U.S. school districts were offering fully in-person learning as of December and 31% were operating all remotely, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which surveyed 477 of the nation’s nearly 13,000 school districts. Other districts have employed a hybrid learning model where students attend some school days in-person and some virtually.

(Reporting Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Gabriella Borter in Boca Raton, Florida, Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)

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