On July 16, 2021, PDE advised school entities to follow current CDC guidance. The PDE and DOH did NOT release separate state guidance or recommendations for the start of the 2021-22 school year. Therefore, the most updated guidance is found in Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools on the CDC website. Below are some important pieces for school leaders to note.
Where We Were
You may recall that it was initially believed that transmission of COVID-19 was low among school age children until, after a matter of months, outbreaks at camps, sports training programs and schools taught us that the transmission rate among school children was not so low as to be nonexistent.
One study reported that in the Fall of 2020, less than two weeks after schools had reopened, attendance by two symptomatic students at high school led to 153 infections of COVID-19 among students (out of 1161 students) and 25 infections of staff (out of 151 staff). At the school, prevention strategies were not adhered to. The mask-wearing requirement had been lifted due to a heat wave, the classrooms were crowded and there was poor ventilation.
By contrast, when prevention strategies are in place and adhered to, the studies show that transmission in schools is typically lower than, or at least similar to, levels of community transmission.
A study of 11 school districts in North Carolina, where in person attendance had continued over at least nine weeks in the Fall of 2020, minimal school-related transmission was reported while the rate of community transmission was high. The schools had implemented and strictly adhered to multiple prevention strategies, including universal mask wearing and physical distancing in school. i
Where We Are Now
CDC guidance update, July 9, 2021. The most recent CDC release, Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schoolsii, is now urging schools to offer and promote COVID-19 vaccination, in partnership or cooperation with local healthcare providers.
The CDC continues to emphasize the need to monitor community transmission levels, reported outbreaks, screening testing for COVID-19 (identifies infection with COVID-19), and the need to monitor vaccination coverage levels.
Prevention Strategies. Prevention strategies remain critical to protect students and adults who are not fully vaccinated. The CDC emphasizes the need to “layer,” or combine, prevention strategies for unvaccinated people.
Prevention strategies include all of the following measures:
(1) Consistent and correct mask use, physical distancing (at least 3 feet within the classroom), (2) ventilation, (3) cleaning and disinfection, (4) handwashing and respiratory etiquette (covering coughs and sneezes), (5) staying home when sick and getting tested, (6) promoting vaccination, (7) screening testing to promptly identify cases, clusters and outbreaks, (8) contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. Cohorting and grouping of students also continues to be mentioned as a strategy.
The above prevention strategies are even more important in areas of moderate-to-high levels of community transmission.
What Remains Critically Important?
CDC Transportation Order. On January 29, 2021, the CDC issued an Order mandating that face masks be worn at all times while travelling on school busses and school vehicles. This Order, which has the force of law, was issued under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C.§ 264, and 42 C.F.R. §70.2, and remains in effect until further notice.
Unlike the CDC’s guidance, which consist of a collection of recommendations and best practices, the CDC travel Order mandates that travelers (including school bus & van drivers, students, staff and personal assistants), must wear masks over the mouth and nose at all times when traveling to and from school and school programs. For anyone riding on a school bus or school vehicle, this means that everyone must wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, at all times.
Exceptions: The CDC’s Order provides exceptions for children under 2 years old, disabled children for whom mask wearing is not possible or safe, and for persons for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to health or safety. There is also an exception for persons who communicate by reading lips. These same exceptions apply in other settings where mask wearing is generally required.
Indoor and Outdoor School Settings
Prevention strategies: Students in grades K-6 cannot be vaccinated at this time. The CDC recommends that in schools that include unvaccinated students, the schools may want to continue the practice of universal mask wearing (everyone wears a face mask), because proper mask wearing and distancing in the classroom are particularly important strategies for prevention.
Universal mask wearing is also suggested by the CDC in the following circumstances:
- COVID-19 transmission rates are or become moderate to high in the community during the school year,
- There is a COVID-19 variant in the community that is spread more easily among children and adolescents or results in more severe illness among children and adolescents,
- There is a low rate of vaccination in the vaccine-eligible population in the community.
Prevention strategies are also important when school authorities lack a system to monitor the vaccine status of students and employees; when there is a low vaccination rate in the community; when student’s families or employees would not participate in in-personal learning if mask wearing is not universal; or when the school has difficulty enforcing a mask wearing policy if it is not applicable to all.
Ventilation: The CDC reminds us that improving ventilation where possible is an important prevention strategy to reduce the number of virus particles in the air. The CDC offers specific guidance on ventilation in schools and childcare programs, as well as guidance on ventilation in buildings and improving ventilation in the home. There is also a “Ventilation FAQ’s.” Ventilation guidance can be accessed on the CDC’s website under the topic of COVID-19.
Outdoor settings: The CDC states that mask wearing is generally unnecessary outdoors, but there are exceptions. Exceptions include when unvaccinated persons are in crowded outdoor settings or activities that involve sustained close contact with people and when the rate of community transmission is substantial to high. iii
School Activities: COVID 19 Screening Testing
Screening testing is now more available than in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the CDC’s recommendations is to partner with local health departments where possible to implement screening testing when school participants in sports and activities are not fully vaccinated. Activities for which there may be elevated risk and screening testing would be important include singing, shouting, band, sports and exercise that involve increased exhalation.
What Guidance Is Available Through the Department of Education?
United States Department of Education. To date, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has published the following:
- February 12, 2021 – ED COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 1: Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools.
- April 9, 2021 – ED COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Reopening and Meeting Students’ Needs
- June 6, 2021 – ED COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 3, Strategies for Safe Operation and Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education Students, Faculty and Staff
The DOE emphasized the need for schools to engage their student families, employees and other community stakeholders in their decision making which affects those groups. One community partner that might be especially helpful is the local department of health, which may be able to provide screening testing for COVID-19 for unvaccinated students and adults who participate in higher risk activities, such as sports and activities where exhalation is increased.
Pennsylvania Department of Education. On July 9, 2021, the PDE acknowledged receipt of the July 9, 2021, updated guidance from the CDC for schools (see note ii below) and stated that PDE would work collaboratively with the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) to review new content in the updated CDC guidance. The PDE offered to provide guidance to schools in the week of July 12, 2021, to July 16, 2021.
On July 16, 2021, the PDE advised school entities to follow the current CDC guidance. The PDE and DOH did NOT release separate state guidance or recommendations for the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Therefore, at this time, the most updated guidance is found in Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools, on the CDC’s website, updated July 9, 2021.
Bottom Line for Schools
The COVID situation remains fluid and recently, COVID cases are increasing, especially among the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, parents are becoming increasing militant with demands to returns kids to a no-mask environment.
There is no right answer for school officials, but legally speaking, there can be no other advice but to follow CDC/PDE guidance.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.
REFERENCES IN THIS ARTICLE:
i CDC Science Brief: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs, updated July 9, 2021.
ii CDC.gov (website)> Coronavirus Disease 2019> Work and School Programs> Schools and Child Care Programs> Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools, updated July 9, 2021.
iii The community transmission rate of COVID-19 is counted in terms of cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days. There may be some time lag in reporting so data for the most recent past seven days may not be immediately available. The four categories of transmission rates are: Low (0-9 cases), Moderate (10-49 cases), Substantial (50-99 cases) and High (>100 cases). The percentage of positive tests in the past seven days is also tracked, using the same categories: Low (<5%), Moderate (5-7.9%), Substantial (8-9.9%), and High (≥ 10%).