Three and a half weeks into the new administration, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a new set of guidelines for K-12 schools. The general features of the guidelines have been well-covered in the press (with some minor mistakes–it’s complicated!), and some public-health researchers have started to weigh in as well (also with some mistakes–it’s complicated!).1 To me, the key operative expression is three and a half weeks into the new administration; the timing reflects both political needs of the Biden administration as it pushes through its COVID relief package,2 and also professional needs of the public-health community to return to ordinary public-health politics after the sheer awfulness of the Trump administration response to the pandemic.
The result is the closest thing to a consensus I would expect at this point, among public-health professionals who disagree on some important things. It’s probably a misnomer to think that a public-health consensus on all important issues are possible, and as a layperson I see significant public disagreements about transmission risks related to school reopening. In addition, we might expect some behind-closed-doors disagreements about the political realities of what drives school re-openings, how much to acknowledge mistaken CDC guidance of the past year, and what to emphasize in a complicated and troubled communication environment. So the guidelines have some clear signals: masking should be universal, schools should come before other parts of society, and younger students and students with disabilities should have priority for in-person schooling. But other things are more complicated or murkier, and either discussed very little–ventilation!–or completely ignored: how to handle both students’ and employees’ needing to eat during the day, when eating unmasked in a group setting is one of the riskiest behaviors in a respiratory pandemic.
Remember: three and a half weeks into the new administration. In reality, that’s fast. There were bound to be omissions or emphases that are wrong in retrospect.
What stuck out to me, as an historian of education and an observer of policy things?
- The guidelines include explicit discussions of equity issues, both the uneven impact of the pandemic on communities (and thus hesitancy of parents in returning to in-person schooling) and also unequal likely impacts of separation from an in-person school environment. There is no “here’s our solution” statement, and that would have been unlikely; the inclusion of these issues was necessary in itself, notable, and welcome.
- The guidelines are remarkably flexible: there are only a few very hard pushes (universal masking and very serious cautions about extracurricular activities). For example, screening is not pushed hard at all, and there are separate in-person-or-virtual tables for districts/schools that can manage testing for screening purposes and districts/schools that cannot.3 For those of us who have seen the past year as a rolling disaster related to the failure of the federal government, this looks painfully tepid as a set of guidelines. But I can see the value in being very cautious about what the guidelines push: the CDC has a serious credibility problem, and it is at least as important to rebuild the long-term credibility of public-health communications as to push every behavior that we’d like to see systematically. And, speaking of which,…
- The big question about this new guidance is how and whether states and districts will respond. After all, they’ve essentially been on their own since the start of the pandemic, and in some states, either the governor or key political actors will push back very hard against either state departments of education or districts that try to follow the CDC guidelines. Ask yourself not only what the districts will do if they try to follow the CDC guidelines with the usual challenges of implementation, but also who will push back, and what leverage they have. And no, despite what you might read in some outlets, unions are not the big problem. Instead, think about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, and the more reactionary forces in the Arizona GOP or in Michigan.
- At least one op-ed criticized the guidelines for requiring testing for screening purposes, which the guidelines don’t require. [↩]
- See the White House statement released yesterday in response to the CDC guidance, and how the statement connects the CDC guidance with COVID relief. [↩]
- The detailed written guidelines have some important cautions about issues related to testing for screening purposes. [↩]