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U.S. schools, pressured to reopen in pandemic, to receive new CDC guidance

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday will issue new COVID-19 guidelines for schools as the Biden administration seeks to fulfill its promise to send most students back to the classroom within its first 100 days.

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The top U.S. health safety agency was expected to provide guidance on a range of measures to mitigate the spread of the virus in the nation’s 130,000 elementary and secondary schools, such as hand washing, masking, social distancing and cleaning, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The guidance is also expected to cover ventilation in classrooms, contact tracing and quarantine protocols. It was due to be formally announced to reporters at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Friday.

Pressure to reopen or expand in-person learning has been building as nearly a year of remote learning has taken a toll on the country’s 55 million public school children and their families.

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.

Recent studies have shown that classrooms are not hotbeds for COVID-19 infection, strengthening the case for reopening schools. Still, it remains to be seen how many school districts will be able to comply with the CDC’s rigorous health protocols in transitioning millions of students from remote learning to in-person school five days a week on the Biden administration’s ambitious timeline.

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.

“I can assure you of one thing: There’s no debate over whether to open schools here. There’s a debate over how,” White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said on Thursday, adding the CDC plan would help provide a road map “to begin to do that aggressively.”

In December, the CDC issued guidance on school reopenings that did not recommend schools conduct universal symptom screening of students but encouraged parents to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms.

The guidance promoted hand hygiene and mask-wearing, and suggested schools decide on reopening after weighing the community’s 14-day positive test average and their ability to implement emergency plans if students or staff test positive.

Teachers have called for quicker vaccinations, but a person familiar with the CDC’s thinking said the guidance expected on Friday will not suggest all teachers be vaccinated in order to return to the classroom.

Last week, CDC’s director, Rochelle Walensky, said schools can still reopen safely even if teachers are not vaccinated, despite teachers being considered essential workers prioritized for vaccinations.

This week, Biden said teachers should be a priority in getting vaccinated against the virus that has killed more than 470,000 Americans.

School reopenings have been the focus of labor disputes between teachers unions and their districts in major U.S. cities. In Chicago this week, after months of negotiations that included threats of a lock-out and strike, the teachers union and district reached agreement on a safety plan.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers union with 3 million members, told Reuters she hoped the CDC guidance on Friday would send “a really strong message that we can and must reopen our school buildings and this is how we do it safely.”

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