Schools can open with “degree of safety,” says former CDC chief

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Students and teachers should be able to return to in-person learning with a “reasonable degree of safety” even before getting the COVID-19 vaccine, former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said, as teachers unions and schools districts across the country grapple with what those safe reopenings look like.

“We can’t hold up reopening schools for vaccination,” Frieden said Friday in an interview on CBSN. “The fact is, that we have seen very little spread in academic settings in schools. Most of what we see is spread in the community.”

COVID-19 vaccinations are open to teachers in some states but not yet in others. Delays in vaccine distribution, coupled with newer, more contagious strains of the virus, have made many educators question the safety of returning to school — particularly in heavily populated areas like Chicago and Los Angeles

But an article written by three CDC scientists in January said data show schools for children in grades K-12 were not a significant source of new coronavirus cases. 

Current CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky echoed a similar view during a press briefing Wednesday, suggesting that vaccination was not a “prerequisite” for reopening schools. 

“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,” Walensky said. White House press secretary Jen Psaki later clarified that the CDC has yet to issue updated guidance on the topic.

Frieden said teachers are certainly a “priority” for vaccination, but that waiting to reopen schools until all teachers were inoculated would be equivalent to “giving up the rest of this school year for most of the country” — something psychologists and child development experts warn could have negative effects on children’s mental health

However, Frieden, who now heads the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives, said it is important to reopen schools “carefully.”

“There are things that we can do to make schools safer — masking, more ventilation, distance and special precautions for students and staff who have underlying health conditions,” he explained.

The CDC also encourages school administrators to work out a cleaning and hygiene plan to ensure students know to wash their hands regularly, as well as follow other proper disinfecting guidelines.  

And as we wait for vaccinations to “kick in more broadly” for society in the coming months, Frieden maintained that other precautions can help communities slow the virus’ spread.

“We have to double down on protection protocols. We can’t take our foot off the brake,” he said. “We have to maintain masking, limit indoor contact with others and enjoy the Super Bowl — but please do so just with people in your own household this weekend.”

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