The New CDC School Reopening Guidelines Should Be Ignored

The CDC finally released new guidance to aid school administrators in their Herculean (and in some cases, Sisyphean) task to reopen schools to in-person learning this fall. Unfortunately, the guidelines suffer from a number of faults, starting with the credibility of the agency itself.

The CDC makes its position clear, releasing a document titled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall“, which parrots favored talking points of the most vocal reopening advocates. We are reminded that in addition to their original purpose of educating kids, schools also perform such vital functions as developing the social and emotional skills of children, addressing kids’ nutritional needs, and facilitating physical activity among children. The CDC bolsters its argument by citing statistics and studies showing that “COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children” and that children “are not the primary drivers of COVID-19 spread in schools or in the community.”

Shoot The Messenger

The problem here is less the message than the messenger. As recently as June, Americans generally trusted the nation’s premier public health agency, with 64% saying it “gets the facts right almost or most of the time regarding COVID-19.” But in the last month, the President has frequently criticized the apolitical organization, calling earlier reopening guidelines “very tough and expensive.” The Vice President then said none of those guidelines should be used as a “barrier” to reopening schools. The Secretary of Education continued to undermine the CDC’s guidelines when she said in a CNN interview that they were “meant to be flexible and meant to be applied as appropriate for the situation.”

Vice President Pence intimated that the CDC would be releasing new guidelines, the clear insinuation being that those guidelines would more closely align with the administration’s desire to find a way to open schools. All of this occurred as CDC internal documents stated that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would be the “highest risk” for the spread of coronavirus. CDC Director Robert Redfield pushed back against the President, saying that the agency would not be revising the guidelines while at the same time backpedaling by saying “it’s guidance, it’s not requirements, and its purpose is to facilitate the reopening and keeping open the schools in this country.” Pence’s promised new guidance was then delayed a week. It was finally released yesterday.

It’s not hard to figure out what happened here. The CDC capitulated to pressure from the administration to release guidance that made it easier for schools to open. They haven’t determined that opening schools is safe because new data has come to light. They simply did what the President wanted. Therefore, there’s no reason to trust anything the CDC says on what’s become a highly-charged issue, regardless of the studies it cites and the statistics it elects to reference. These documents are tainted by political influence, and as such, they deserve no credibility.

A False Choice

A second problem with the CDC guidance is that it sets up a false choice between remote learning as we experienced it during an emergency shutdown and pre-pandemic, in-person education. Few will argue that distance learning is preferable to pre-pandemic education, but those are not the options Americans are facing.

In-person schooling will look nothing like it used to, so when the CDC argues that we have to get kids back to school because children’s social and emotional health is at-risk without it, the agency is failing to consider how such schooling might impact children. Yes, students don’t have the opportunities to engage with peers when they’re stuck home learning on a computer. But will they have authentic opportunities to do so when social distancing at schools is enforced?

No, students probably aren’t getting enough exercise outside of school, but will they get it if specials classes like P.E. are canceled and if students have to remain in predefined areas on playgrounds so they don’t get too close to others?

The CDC makes the same mistake I see nearly everyone making by comparing remote learning, which is bound to be at least somewhat better in the fall than it was in the spring, to in-person education, which is guaranteed to be worse than it was before the pandemic. You can’t fairly claim remote learning is worse for children without considering how bad in-person schooling with social distancing, mask-wearing, and cohorting might be.

Continued isolation at home because of online education is undoubtedly bad for children’s mental health. But how much better will their mental health be if they’re told to get away from their friends, to not hug an injured classmate, and to put their mask back on or else when they attend school in the midst of a pandemic? What will it do to a child’s mental health if their classmates scoot even further away from them when they start coughing in class?

If we’re going to compare models of schooling, we should at least compare what those models will actually look like.

Typical Ignorance

A third problem with the CDC guidance is its inescapable ignorance of how schools work. If this pandemic has revealed anything it’s that large swaths of this nation have no clue about what really goes on in our public schools. One of the major recommendations in the CDC’s guidelines is cohorting, or the keeping of students together in pods throughout the day. This is done to limit exposure and make contact tracing easier in the invent a student catches the virus. Nowhere in the document does the CDC address how the benefits of cohorting are negated as soon as students step on a bus or attend after-school child care.

Those at the CDC also do not understand that social distancing is impossible in public schools. They have evidently never been in the midst of more than three first-graders or tried to get high schoolers from not congregating in a hallway. They’ve never been in a school if they think that frequent cleaning of surfaces, drinking fountains, and bathrooms is going to occur without an army to do the work. My school has one night custodian, and there are only so many hours in a night.

And nowhere does the CDC acknowledge just how disruptive the regular opening and closing of schools will be to student learning, parents’ work schedules, and the economy as a whole. What does the CDC expect to happen when an automated call goes out to 25 parents telling them that because of a positive test result their child’s classroom will be closed for the next two weeks and everyone who was potentially infected should self-isolate? They make no recommendations about just who should self-isolate, leaving that up to local health officials. Should siblings stay home, too? Should classmates of siblings? And what are parents to do in such a situation? Should they assume they’re COVID-positive and stay home from work? Will their employers allow them to? Now multiply this times however many classrooms have a suspected COVID-positive student or teacher, and don’t forget that this won’t just happen one time during the year. It may happen over and over again.

And what point do such frequent disruptions tilt the scale away from what will assuredly be intensely flawed in-person learning experiences toward less disruptive and unquestionably safer remote learning? Doesn’t certainty, even if it’s in something less than ideal, affect the calculus?

The guidelines from the CDC reflect an optimism that has proven time and again to be deadly. Every hope we have had about this virus has been dashed, and cruelly. We hoped it would stay in China, hoped it would “disappear”, hoped it was seasonal, hoped we could reopen our economy, and hoped we’d be immune once we had it.

Now the CDC is hoping schools won’t spread the virus. Their recommendation to reopen schools is purported to be the result of a sober analysis of costs versus benefits. Instead, it’s a political document that compares the wrong things and makes the wrong conclusion. For those reasons, it deserves to be ignored by school leaders.

The CDC is hoping schools won't spread the virus. Their recommendation to reopen schools is purported to be the result of a sober analysis of costs versus benefits. Instead, it's a political document that compares the wrong things and… Click To Tweet

What Happens If I Get Sick?

This past week my district hosted a virtual “happy hour” during which administrators provided an update on planning for the fall and invited questions from staff. There were many questions and not quite as many answers. I do not fault district leaders for this. When the Secretary of Education has no plan and the state’s school reopening Roadmap is not really a plan, it’s a bit much to expect local administrators to have a plan.

Part of the reason for the lack of a plan is that there are no answers. The pandemic has acted as a stress test for our entire society and schools, barely surviving in normal times, have broken under that stress. We haven’t witnessed the destruction yet because schools are not in session, but if they reopen in the manner advocated for by the President, Secretary of Education, and ill-informed parents on Facebook who want to get back to work and are sick of watching their own kids, then the crumbling will be swift, vivid, and startling.

Teachers who actually work in schools have thousands of questions about how in-person education will work. Those questions will continue to go unanswered because most are unanswerable.

Either there are no answers or the answers are so unpalatable that to voice them exposes the absurdity of the entire effort.

Those who insist we embark on this ill-fated escapade have either given no serious thought to how any of it will work or they’ve placed their heads firmly in the sand and are, unimaginably, relying on nothing more than hope to see us through.

Hope may be the thing with feathers but it’s a terrible strategy.

Consider just one relatively simple (and likely) scenario and see if you can provide reasonable answers to the questions that arise.

What happens if I, a fourth-grade teacher, get sick?

Imagine the following scene:

I have woken up in the night with a fever. It’s 4 a.m. As advised by my state’s Roadmap and mandated by district policy, I take my temperature. It’s 100 degrees. I will be staying home. So I log on to my laptop and put in for a sub.

Questions:

Does my district notify the substitute pool that I am absent because of a high temperature (which of course implies that I may be COVID-positive)? If so, can we reasonably expect any sub to take the job? If not, isn’t my district being unethical? Do they open themselves up to a lawsuit if a sub, ignorant of the reason for my absence, takes the job and then gets infected and dies?

What should my wife, who teaches at a different building in the same district, do? Although she has no temperature or other symptoms, should she take precautions against possible infection and also stay home? Should she explain the situation to our employer? If she does, every question asked above must be asked again.

And what about our daughter, who will be a ninth-grader this year? Should we also assume she might be infected and keep her home? Should we notify the district that it’s possible she has been walking around the hallways of the high school as an asymptomatic carrier of the virus?

Which parents should be notified if I wake up with a temperature? Surely the parents of my students, but what about the parents of my wife’s students? What about my daughter’s classmates?

How will these parents be notified? Wouldn’t parents want the earliest possible notification if their children may have been exposed to COVID by their teacher or a classmate? Does the district send a robocall at 5 a.m. to give parents enough time to find child care?

What about privacy? Will the district be informing parents which teacher might be positive so parents can assess their child’s risk for themselves?

Being a responsible person, I, of course, don’t rely on a thermometer. I go get tested for the virus. Now I wait, possibly for as long as a week, for the results.

What do my students do in the meantime? Are they taught by a sub? Who would take such a job, knowing I had been in the room touching and breathing on everything? If a sub isn’t acquired, who will teach my students? Perhaps nobody will and my students, having been exposed to me, will have to stay home and do remote learning. Who’s teaching them? Me, even though COVID can leave its victims bedridden and bereft of energy and appetite? Is it even legal to require sick teachers to perform their jobs? Or will the district have to find a substitute to teach my students remotely? Have subs been trained to do so? Will I need to turn my Google Classroom and Google Meet credentials over to this person? Will I be expected, as I always have been, to furnish my substitute with lesson plans, even though I can’t get out of bed and can barely stay awake? Who provides these plans if I’m hospitalized?

And what of my wife? Every question asked for my situation must also be asked (and answered) for hers.

What about my COVID-possible daughter? Which high school students should be asked to self-quarantine? Every student she shares a class with? Every student with whom she may have shared air while walking the hallways? What about those students’ younger siblings? For that matter, what about the siblings of my and my wife’s students? Should they also stay home for two weeks? Should they get tested? What should they do while they wait for the results?

Let’s say my test comes back positive. I won’t be returning until I test negative, which could take a month. When can my students return to school? Who will teach them? Does the district get a long-term sub to teach my students remotely until my return? What happens when I run out of sick days? What happens when my wife also runs out of sick days? Do we just not get paid for two weeks?

And what’s the threshold for total school closure? How many teachers and/or students have to test positive before everyone goes remote? What if 20 kids are sick one morning and are in the process of waiting for test results? Do we just assume they don’t have COVID and keep schools operating as normal, or do we assume they’re infected and shut down immediately?

When teachers complain there isn’t a plan, this is just a sliver of what they’re talking about. The above is one scenario – it doesn’t address questions about what happens when students don’t follow guidelines, or how to provide special education and intervention services without increasing the risk of spreading the virus, or what bus drivers should do when a student has a coughing fit on the bus ride to school in the morning – and it’s hardly inconceivable. It’s also just one family in one district. What happens if three teachers, all of whom have multiple children in the district, wake up with a fever that might be COVID?

Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to start school in the fall. What’s unacceptable is to begin without a plan that answers the most challenging questions. Teachers, parents, and students deserve to know what school will look like and what will happen when the inevitable occurs. To not develop detailed plans is to either admit hopelessness or to put all your eggs in the basket of providence, praying that everything will magically work out.

That’s not just irresponsible, it’s stupid.

If you can’t answer basic questions about likely scenarios, then you can’t reopen schools.

If you can't answer basic questions about likely scenarios, then you can't reopen schools. Click To Tweet

We’ve already tried hope. We hoped this would stay in China. We hoped it would disappear. We hoped anti-malarial drugs would be therapeutic. We hoped the virus would weaken with the summer. The South hoped it could reopen its economy without a subsequent spike.

Now we hope children won’t get sick. We hope kids won’t spread the virus to their teachers, parents, and siblings. We hope it will all work out.

Hope has failed us because hope, for all its wonder, isn’t a strategy.

The education system should not make the same mistake as the federal government. Instead of hoping our problems away, we should come up with plans that deal with them or we should admit that we can’t and give up on a return to in-person education.

Instead of hoping our problems away, we should come up with plans that deal with them or we should admit that we can't and give up on a return to in-person education. Click To Tweet

What Happens When They Don’t?

States have finally started to release guidance to school districts for the “safe” reopening of buildings for in-person instruction. My state’s Return to School Roadmap takes a phased approach, with each phase providing guidelines that are either “required,” “strongly recommended” or “recommended.” In Phase 4, some of the requirements are:

“Facial coverings must be worn in classrooms by all students grades 6-12 ” and that “Facial coverings must always be worn by staff except for meals.”

Schools “must cooperate with the local public health department regarding implementing protocols for screening students and staff.”

Schools are also required to “provide adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors (including soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for safe use by staff and students, paper towels, tissues, and signs reinforcing proper handwashing techniques).”

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ letter advocating the reopening of in-person learning provides similarly authoritative guidance. It says that,

Bus drivers “should be a minimum of 6 feet from students; drivers must wear face coverings; consider physical barriers for drivers (eg, plexiglass).”

“Surfaces that are used frequently, such a drinking fountains, door handles, sinks and faucet handles, etc, should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily and as often as possible.”

“Children should wear face coverings when harms (eg, increasing hand-mouth/nose contact) do not outweigh benefits (potential COVID-19 risk reduction).”

I’ve got few reservations about the recommendations and I don’t envy any leaders trying to figure out how to make face-to-face instruction work in the middle of a pandemic, but neither Michigan’s Roadmap nor the AAP’s letter say anything about enforcement.

They’ve written a rulebook and left out the part where it explains what happens when the rules are broken.

No matter what states “require” or what plans districts formulate in the next month, it’s all useless if one question doesn’t get answered and answered definitively:

What happens when they don’t?

What happens when students don’t wear their masks? What happens when I, as the teacher, tells Mark to put on his mask and he tells me no? What then?

That’s not rhetorical. What then?

What happens when parents walk their children to their classrooms each morning even though school policy forbids non-employee adult access to the building? What happens when after I politely remind them of the policy they return the next day? What happens when they tell me that as taxpayers they have the right to walk their five-year-old to the classroom each morning? What do I do about that?

What happens when a sick kid is sent to school and parents refuse to pick them up because they can’t leave work without risking their job? It’s been made abundantly clear that schools are child care providers that produce the oil that lubricates the engine of the American economy. So what happens when Mom says she’ll get fired if she has to miss work to watch over her coughing child? What does the student do with that student and about that parent?

What is a bus driver to do with a student who starts violently coughing five minutes after she’s boarded? There may be no one at home to leave her with, but keeping her on the bus risks infecting others, including the driver himself. So what’s the policy? What does that bus driver, at that moment in time, do?

What happens when custodians don’t clean as often as they’re supposed to?

What happens when the district doesn’t provide what it’s”required” to?

Where does an employee report such grievances? How does a teacher complain without making herself vulnerable to staffing reductions which many districts will still be looking to make?

It’s as if those who’ve designed the plans are deluded by the fanciful dream that everyone will simply abide. They seem to not understand what every teacher in the country who will enter their classrooms knows with the same certitude that the President will say something stupid today. Teachers will be confronted with defiance because they have always been confronted with defiance. It’s not a matter of if students and parents will ignore or willfully defy the rules; it’s only a matter of how quickly and how often they will.

And if teachers required further assurance of such inevitabilities, they need look no further than their own social media accounts. Twitter provides daily examples of people flouting even the mildest mitigation efforts. Young people congregating at parties, hysterically intransigent Karens shouting about their “right” to not wear masks, toxically masculine Trump-loving bros slandering mask-wearers as unthinking sheep. All of them will be sending their kids to school. Judging by your Facebook, is there any doubt that some of these students, having marinated in the stew of their parents’ opinions for six months, are going to manifest those beliefs when they board buses and stomp through schoolhouse doors?

Teachers are being told that it’s critically important for students and teachers to return to in-person education. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance argues that academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech/mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity are all harmed by further time away from school. They claim that the interruption of school services results in social isolation and leaves kids more vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicide. According to these pediatricians, school reopenings are literally a matter of life and death.

The opening of schools is therefore so important we are willing to impose and accept a number of aggravations to make it possible, and, we hope, safe.

If it is indeed so crucial that students return to school, then it’s equally crucial that funding is provided to open in the safest ways possible. And if new rules are the only way we can ensure such safety, then the state must provide the authority to enforce those rules.

Teachers, bus drivers, principals, and school boards have to know what they should do when the rules, which, again, are meant to prevent death, are disregarded or brazenly contradicted.

Just how serious are we prepared to be with those who don’t comply?

It’s not enough for states to punt enforcement to districts. I’m a local control guy as much as the next teacher but states already insert themselves in areas of significant consequence. They don’t allow districts to create their own policies around standardized testing, special education services, or contact hours. Much of what my district does is at the behest of the state, with severe consequences for noncompliance.

When things are important enough – and it’s hard to argue that the reopening of schools during a pandemic doesn’t meet that standard – then the state steps in. Some things are non-negotiable. Limiting the spread of a deadly virus should be one of them.

If the state doesn’t provide direction, some districts will abdicate their responsibilities. Afraid of lawsuits, they’ll adopt overly timid approaches. Because so much of the pandemic has become political, districts will be reluctant to enter such divisive territory. Unwilling to offend those they serve, they’ll choose no side at all. Such dereliction will do what it always does: leaves teachers in the lurch.

Teachers will be expected, as they always are, to fill the void created by governments unwilling to pay for the very things they will require and too timorous to boldly stand behind their new rules. Or they’ll be betrayed by district leaders who cravenly elect to avoid conflict with vocal parents. Instead of clear direction and support, teachers will be told to have a growth mindset! To sacrifice because kids are worth it! To be a team player!

If teachers want the door handles disinfected, they’ll be the ones to do it.

If they want Kleenex, they’ll buy it or ask parents to.

If they want masks, they’ll head to DonorsChoose.

If they want to be protected from kids coughing in their faces they’ll … well, I don’t know what they’ll do, which is the whole point.

It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules.

It is unconscionable to send teachers back to school with a set of new rules meant to keep society safe while depriving them of the authority necessary to enforce those rules. Click To Tweet

We teachers have learned to expect little from the rest of society. In spite of our essentialness to the American economy, we don’t expect a raise this year. We don’t expect our employers to actually provide everything we need to do our jobs; we’re conditioned to fill those gaps with our own money. We’ve gotten used to taxpayers sniping about our “part-time” status. We’re not really surprised at the insincerity of those who at the start of the pandemic professed newfound gratitude for what we do each day. It doesn’t shock us that we’re being sent back to classrooms with little more than hope that everything will work out.

We’re not too sure about the new rules put in place for students’ return to school. But we might be willing to give them a shot if you could tell us what to do when they’re not followed.