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CDC releases new guidance for safely reopening schools based on level of community spread

COVID-19 Decatur Kirkwood and East Lake Metro ATL Trending

CDC releases new guidance for safely reopening schools based on level of community spread

The CDC Roybal Campus. Source: CDC.gov
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This story has been updated. 

By Zoe Seiler, contributor

DeKalb County, GA — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that schools can safely return students to the classroom by using COVID-19 mitigation strategies, such as wearing masks and social distancing.

The reopening strategies would be determined based on the level of community spread and the CDC provided a color-coded guide to help communities decide when and how to reopen.

The CDC recommends state and local officials should consider giving high priority to teachers to receive the vaccine but adds that access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for returning to the classroom in person.

The agency released a report on Friday, Feb. 12, offering an updated framework for reopening schools.

The CDC provided a color-coded guide for returning to school that includes different K-12 learning modes, like hybrid learning. The guide is based on community infection rates, to help school districts determine what level of return is appropriate. The new guidance makes clear that some in-person learning opportunities can be available at any level of community transmission, The Washington Post reported.

Schools have been largely virtual since March, but districts are starting to reopen their doors to students.

Locally, City Schools of Decatur have brought back PreK through fifth grade students and Atlanta Public Schools is bringing back students in phases, starting with PreK through second grade. DeKalb County Schools has required teachers to return to the buildings, but students have not resumed in-person learning.

According to the new CDC guidance, schools should use two measures of COVID-19 spread to determine the risk level: total number of new cases per 100,000 people within the past seven days and the positivity rate during the last seven days.

As of Feb. 12, the total cases within the last two weeks in DeKalb County was 2,881 and the total per 100,000 people was 363. In Fulton County, the total number of cases within the last two weeks was 3,983 and the total per 100,000 people was 362, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The positivity rate in both counties is 8% in the last 14 days.

Communities with the lowest levels of infection would be in “blue” and “yellow” zones, allowing for full instruction while practicing social distancing of 6 feet or more to the greatest extent possible. Sports and extracurricular activities should also require masks and social distancing.

In the “blue” phase, the total number of new cases per 100,000 people should be zero to nine and the positivity rate should be less than 5%. The number of new cases in the “yellow” zone should be 10 to 49 and the positivity rate should be between 5% and 7.9%.

With the caveat that the state of Georgia reports 14-day averages of cases per 100,000 people and positivity rates, the updated CDC guidance puts DeKalb County schools, City Schools of Decatur and Atlanta Public Schools somewhere between the “orange” and “red” zones.

A chart showing the zones of COVID-19 spread, based on guidance provided by the CDC. Chart created by Zoe Seiler

The risk of exposure in schools is tied to community spread and the implementation of mitigation strategies, according to the CDC.

Schools in the “orange” zone, those with substantial transmission, can operate with reduced attendance, which could be a hybrid model where students split time between in-person and virtual instruction.

Sports and extracurricular activities under the “orange” zone can occur outdoors with masks and social distancing. The total number of cases per 100,000 people should be between 50 and 99. The positivity rate should be 8% to 9.9%.

The final category is the “red” zone which is high transmission. Elementary schools in the red zone should be in a hybrid mode with physical distancing. Middle and high schools should be virtual only unless schools can strictly implement mitigation strategies. Sports and extracurricular activities should also be virtual.

In the red zone, the total number of new cases per 100,000 people is greater than 100 and the positivity rate is greater than 10%.

According to the CDC, all schools should use and layer five key strategies which include:

– Universal and correct use of masks

– Social distancing

– Washing hands and practicing respiratory etiquette

– Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, and

– Contact tracing with isolation and quarantine and in partnership with the local health department.

The agency added that schools should prioritize wearing masks and social distancing.

“It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services,” the CDC report says.

K-12 schools should also be the last establishments to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been utilized, and the first to reopen when it is safe to do so, the report said.

The CDC also found evidence to suggest that in-person instruction is not a primary driver of community transmission, adding that although children can be infected, get sick and spread COVID-19, they are less susceptible than adults, and may be less infectious. They are additionally less likely to have severe symptoms or die and are more likely to be asymptomatic, according to the CDC.

“In-person learning for elementary schools is likely to have less risk of in-school transmission than for middle schools and high schools,” according to the CDC.

The agency also recommended, as part of the phased mitigation, that students, teachers and staff who are at high risk or live with someone who is at high risk for contracting COVID-19 should be provided virtual options.

The DeKalb County School District has received this report and is currently reviewing it.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring said, in a statement, that the mitigation strategies and protocols for COVID-19 the district already has in place are aligned with CDC recommendations.

“Our efforts include,” Herring said, “a phased-in approach to in-person learning, our comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy, providing COVID-19 surveillance testing, the deep cleaning of our schools and buildings, providing a COVID-19 capacity dashboard tool to principals for appropriate social distancing in classrooms, providing PPE, hand sanitizers, and other items to our students and staff along with requiring temperature checks and health screenings upon entry to schools and buildings.”

A message to City Schools of Decatur seeking comment about the new CDC guidance was not immediately returned.

To read the full report, click here.

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