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

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