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CDC Issues New Guidance for K-12 Schools' Re-Opening to In-Person Instruction

February 17, 2021

By John M. Stellwagen & Heather J. Van Meter

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its long-awaited revised guidance for re-opening K-12 schools for in-person instruction. This comprehensive 38-page guidance comes as K-12 schools have begun planning for or have resumed in-person instruction. The CDC guidance complements the U.S. Department of Education’s Handbook on Safe School Reopening. The CDC guidance aligns with the decision by the Oregon Governor on December 23, 2020, encouraging a return to in-person instruction, and aligns with the Oregon Department of Education’s recently updated guidance on a return to in-person instruction.

The CDC guidance addresses both when and how K-12 schools can re-open while mitigating the risk of COVID-19 spreading among students, teachers, staff, visitors, and their families. CDC’s guidance focuses heavily on wearing masks, physical distancing, handwashing, cleaning, and phased re-opening, depending on community transmission levels. The CDC acknowledges the evidence that K-12 schools are not a primary driver of community COVID transmission. Conversely, the CDC recognizes that schools are important not only for education but also school meal programs, physical and mental health services, and mitigating the results of racial and ethnic disparities for children in education. In particular, elementary school students are less susceptible to COVID, more likely to be asymptomatic, and have lower transmission rates. 

The CDC recommends that any re-opening planning include engagement with students and families, teachers and staff, and their families. Notably, any re-opening plan must ensure compliance with federal disability laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (including IEPs and Section 504 plans), U.S. Department of Education requirements, federal health and education privacy laws (including HIPAA and FERPA), applicable state laws, emergency orders, and applicable health department rules and guidelines. Any K-12 schools or school districts are encouraged to contact Bullard Law for guidance amid this compliance maze.

CDC guidance is centralized on five key, layered strategies for better mitigation of COVID-19 transmission in schools, using (1) Universal Facial Masks; (2) Physical Distancing; (3) Handwashing; (4) Clean Facilities; and (5) COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Isolation/Quarantining.

1. Universal Facial Masks

This strategy focuses on all students, teachers, staff, vendors, and visitors using proper masks at all times on school property.  The only exceptions are when eating/drinking, and for those who cannot safely wear masks (i.e., could not personally remove masks in an emergency), in which case, compliance with disability laws is still required, but virtual instruction may be the best option.  Proper and properly fitting cotton masks are highly recommended. Although not part of the CDC guidance, K-12 schools should consider providing free child and adult masks to ensure compliance, avoid turning away un-masked students or staff, and due to the possibility of masking being cost-prohibitive for some people. 

2. Physical Distancing

This strategy emphasizes six-foot physical distancing as much as possible.  When six-foot distancing is not possible, such as inside classrooms, the CDC recommends the use of “cohorting” (cohorts or pods), a group of students and teachers/staff that stay together throughout the school day and each day on-site. Compliance with federal disability laws is important with this strategy, as is compliance with civil rights laws relating to English-language learners. Itinerant staff such as speech-language pathologists or Title I assistants should keep detailed contact tracing logs in addition to using masks and physical distancing when possible so that contact tracing can be completed if necessary.  Additional physical distancing recommendations include installing physical barriers (e.g., clear plastic) at reception desks and other common areas and limiting visitors to essential persons only. Alternate scheduling of fixed cohorts/pods to decrease class size and increase physical distancing is a good option, either using AM/PM scheduling or certain days of the week (e.g., Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday cohorts). Staggering schedules of pick-up and drop-off times and having pick-up and drop-off at curbside or established cohort locations is also advised to keep commingling of persons to a minimum and maximize physical distancing. 

3. Handwashing

This strategy requires teaching and reinforcing handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds frequently throughout the day and mandatorily after any coughing, sneezing, or nose-blowing. Although not part of the CDC guidance, schools may want to consider installing portable, temporary handwashing stations inside classrooms or in hallways (while adhering to fire codes and safety rules) or otherwise immediately nearby to facilitate frequent handwashing. Alcohol hand sanitizer of at least 60% alcohol may be used if soap and water are not readily available; however, hand sanitizer must be properly used (allowed to dry on hands). Students with disabilities may need special assistance with this process.

4. Clean Facilities

This strategy emphasizes physical layout changes to encourage distancing as well as regular cleaning of all touched surfaces (playground equipment, counters, doors, handles, sinks, toilets, school buses, etc.). Physical layout adjustments may include turning all desks in one direction with tape on the ground to show six-foot spacing and one-directional arrows to avoid cross-traffic inside rooms, bathrooms, and common areas. Closing lunchrooms and eating areas are recommended; however, individual sack lunches are preferred to any self-serve facilities. Lunchrooms can instead be used as large classrooms to aid physical distancing. This strategy also encourages improved ventilation, such as open windows and doors when safe to do so. Although not part of the CDC guidance, improved ventilation systems inside schools may also be advisable.

5. COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Isolation/Quarantining

This strategy involves schools working with state and local health departments to identify and carry out contact tracing for students, teachers, staff, or visitors diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19. Persons diagnosed with COVID-19 should self-isolate at home, and close contacts exposed to diagnosed persons should self-quarantine at home as well. Any students, teachers, staff, or visitors with COVID-19 symptoms should avoid school and get tested for the virus. This strategy requires careful navigation of health and education privacy laws (e.g., HIPAA, FERPA), disability laws, sick leave laws, and revised policies. A large group of substitute teachers may be needed to allow teachers to isolate or quarantine when needed. Schools should also maintain records on class scheduling and attendance, cohort/pod member attendance, and visitor/staff attendance to aid in health department contact tracing in compliance with health laws and privacy laws. Schools should bear in mind that students who are required to isolate or quarantine are still entitled to education services and compliance with disability laws.

The CDC’s recommendations regarding the timing of schools re-opening to in-person instruction depend on community virus transmission rates and whether widespread screening and diagnostic testing of all symptomatic persons is taking place. If schools are not implementing widespread screening and diagnostic testing of all symptomatic persons, then the following guidelines for the timing of re-opening apply: The CDC recommends full-time, in-person instruction for K-12 schools only if community transmission levels are moderate or low (new cases per day per 100,000 under 49 and 7-day positive test results under 8%), and recommends hybrid in-person/online learning for K-12 schools only if community transmission levels are high or substantial (new cases per day per 100,000 at 100 or below and 7-day positive test results at 10% or below), with middle and high school online only if in the high category of community transmission. Any re-opening is dependent upon the implementation of the five above strategies.

Recommendations for sports and extra-curricular activities vary based on the community transmission levels as well. If screening and diagnostic testing are implemented, then greater in-person instruction and activities may be permitted. However, such testing programs must comply with health and education privacy laws. For this reason, even the CDC only recommends voluntary testing programs, rendering comprehensive testing programs difficult to implement legally.

For all schools: if active outbreaks occur, classrooms or schools should consider immediate, temporary closures and work with the health department to implement testing and contact tracing with isolation/quarantining as needed. Continual (daily) monitoring of community transmission rates is necessary. 

The CDC advises any school and school districts to consult with their attorneys and other advisors to develop and revise a safe re-opening plan. Contact Bullard Law to discuss establishing or revising your school re-opening plans today.

The content of this Alert is provided for general information purposes only. It should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for consulting an attorney for legal advice.

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