March 2021 changes to CDC guidance on schools: brief comment

Five weeks ago, after the CDC released its first set of new school operations guidance under the Biden administration, I wrote in summary, “Remember: [these recommendations come] 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.”

On Friday, the CDC tinkered with the February guidance, changing its recommendations for physical distancing and putting a much greater emphasis on improving ventilation in schools. The headline in most news coverage was the recommendation for 3-foot distancing in elementary school classrooms, and also in classrooms for middle and high schools where community transition is low. In response to criticism by epidemiologists, the CDC also beefed up the guidance on ventilation.

These changes do not surprise me, either from a public-health or communications standpoint. If we get slight-to-moderate adjustments in guidance every five or six weeks in a pandemic, that strikes me as a reasonable pace to respond both to new information and to requests from schools and communities. Again, one of the biggest questions is whether and how this might change actual practices, and the conversations around school operations.

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