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Some schools in the U.S. have reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Complexio/Getty Images
  • The CDC has released new guidelines on how schools can safely reopen.
  • The mitigation practices include many of the procedures we’re already familiar with, such as mask wearing and physical distancing.
  • But the practices don’t call for mandatory vaccination of teachers.

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Controversy over whether schools should reopen arises again as the Biden administration prepares to release guidelines on how schools can reopen safely.

The administration isn’t expected to require teachers to get vaccinated before schools reopen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its guidelines for an operational strategy that would help make it safe for grades K-12 to reopen. This is assuming the schools follow specific “mitigation practices,” such as keeping desks apart and increasing airflow.

The CDC released its guidelines for reopening schools on Feb. 12. These guidelines include five mitigation strategies for safely returning to in-person schooling:

  • universal and correct wearing of masks
  • physical distancing
  • handwashing
  • cleaning facilities and upgrading ventilation
  • contact tracing, quarantining, and isolation

What the guidelines don’t call for, however, is the mandatory vaccination of teachers before reopeneing.

Instead the guidelines say “access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”

According to the Biden administration, teacher vaccinations would be secondary to school districts adhering to the recommended mitigation practices.

These practices would include mask wearing, physical distancing, and a hand hygiene program that would entail coughing and sneezing guidance.

In the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness report, the Biden administration issued an executive order titled “Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers.”

The executive order requires the Departments of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to provide guidance on the safe reopening and operating of schools, as well as developing best practices to share.

With these in place, the Biden administration deems that teacher vaccination doesn’t need to be mandatory in order for schools to reopen safely.

Studies show that elementary-aged children going for in-person learning and in-person education have been relatively safe, and that virus transmission between children or between children and adults is lower than between solely adults.

Therefore, the Biden administration is looking to reopen schools during what some experts think is a precarious time, especially when considering the health and safety of teachers and school administration staff.

“There is proof of the new U.K. variant [of SARS-CoV-2] in more than 30 states,” said Dr. Matthew Heinz, a hospitalist based in Tucson, Arizona. “It spreads 50 to 60 percent more efficiently than the current coronavirus, and it will likely overtake the current version of the virus within 4 to 6 weeks.”

What this means is that while it may seem like we’re in a downturn of COVID-19 cases nationwide, we may actually be in the eye of a hurricane and cases could spike again.

Heinz is seeing a manageable number of COVID-19 cases in his hospital right now, but when looking at a potential new spike coming on, his concerns rise.

“I worry that if you have teachers of any age, especially those 60 and over who have comorbidities, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, it makes me nervous,” he said. “We really have to take a long, hard look to make sure that this is going to be safe. With a new variant coming in, it makes me even more nervous about opening schools.”

Without schools reopening, many parents are left to choose between caring for their children and balancing a job. Reopening schools would allow many households to be able to resume a closer version to business as usual.

But at what cost?

“It’s bad all around,” Heinz said. “But I think we need to be very careful right now looking at what’s on the horizon and be very cautious doing any sort of reopening, with or without vaccinated teachers.”

That said, there are medical professionals who believe that mitigation efforts are enough in order to open schools safely.

“Vaccine rollout is progressing throughout the country and although we do want educators to get vaccinated as soon as possible, data is clear that there are other representative measures — masking, social distancing, frequent handwashing, daily temperature taking to monitor for fevers and testing — that can be done to keep everyone safe at school,” said Dr. Tanya Altmann, MD, FAAP, a UCLA-trained pediatrician in Southern California.

Altmann pointed out that school closures are taking a toll on children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.

“We know how the virus spreads and how to prevent it,” Altmann said. “Wear a mask, get to know your personal temperature (everyone has a different temperature range so knowing your number can help you better identify a fever), wash your hands and, of course, practice social distancing.”

While there are still limited doses of the vaccine, the CDC has provided recommendations for who will receive the vaccine first, taking into consideration age groups and people with underlying health conditions. Frontline and essential workers were also given priority.

According to EducationWeek, teachers and other school staff members are on many priority lists, but not everywhere. The decision to prioritize teachers falls at a local level.

“I have not heard any pushback from teachers [about schools reopening],” said one Brooklyn, New York, school administrator who asked to remain anonymous. “I think that is because educators [in New York City] have been allowed to get the vaccine.”

“It’s been a disaster of a [vaccine] rollout,” the Brooklyn administrator added. “They say that kids aren’t carriers, but in New York City especially, students live in multigenerational homes. A good amount of my students are being raised by grandparents or who have grandparents who live with them. I do feel that teachers are essential and that nationwide they should be provided the vaccine like they are in New York.”

In Arizona, on the other hand, whether teachers are eligible to receive the vaccine varies by location as of Feb. 4. In Connecticut, as of Feb. 9, teachers were still ineligible.

Heriberto Sánchez, a career and technical education teacher for grades 9-12 in San Diego, California, said he would rather stick with distance learning for now.

“As a teacher, it’s simple. If you want to go back and teach with or without the vaccine, it’s up to you,” Sánchez said. “COVID has been hard on everyone, but it has been hardest on the students. The best solution for me would be to finish the rest of the [2020-2021] year with distance learning. The majority of teachers [in my district] do not want to go back to the classroom this year.”