Schools will be back in session shortly, with some districts starting as soon as mid-August. District officials will be looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on Covid mitigation. The preliminary version of updated CDC guidelines deemphasizes masking, distancing, testing, and quarantining—appropriately enough, given that almost everyone is now eligible to be vaccinated and those who are not vaccinated almost certainly have infection-acquired immunity.
What, then, is stopping the CDC from telling kids and teachers that Covid mitigation measures are no longer necessary? The answer may be buried in the following sentence from a recent CNN report: “The changes, which may be publicly released as early as this week, were previewed to educators and public health officials.” If the CDC winds up tightening its guidelines in contravention of both evidence and common sense, it will be hard not to assume that the heads of educators’ unions were pulling strings—again.
Unions have played a major role in shaping CDC guidance before, and it didn’t end well. In early 2021, the CDC allowed the most influential teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, to review and edit new reopening guidance meant to provide a “safe” path to getting kids back in schools. Union heads were given direct, unprecedented access to CDC director Rochelle Walensky; the CDC inserted verbatim text from their emails into the guidance.
As a result, the CDC’s union-approved guidance, released in February 2021, slammed the brakes on full reopening by linking it so tightly to community spread that only 5 percent of the nation’s schools met the criteria to open at the time—this despite several studies showing that spread in schools was far lower than in surrounding communities. One seminal analysis published by the CDC just a month earlier had found only seven instances of in-school transmission over 13 weeks, though cases in the counties studied were exceedingly high.
The union-vetted guidance also strongly recommended six-foot distancing, an unscientific and arbitrary spacing requirement that kept millions of children home half of the week, if they were allowed in buildings at all. In Portland, Oregon, the teachers’ association used this guidance to lock six feet of distancing into their contracts for the entire school year. The CDC eventually updated the guidance in March 2021 to recommend only three feet of distancing, but the Portland district was powerless to increase the density of students in buildings, given the year-long contract specifying 6 feet. Portland’s version of “hybrid” learning for high school students translated to five hours per week in the building.
In districts that adhere closely to CDC guidelines, which compose nearly half of the nation’s population of public-school children, rising third-graders have never had an entirely normal school year. Much of their first two years of elementary school were spent at home on screens. When they returned, they were masked, distanced, swabbed, and quarantined for merely being in the same room as someone with a sniffle. They’ve seen countless field trips, plays, concerts, and story times canceled or Zoomed over the last three years. It’s incumbent upon the CDC to lead the way in giving kids a normal school year—and to reject the precedent of letting teachers’ unions influence public health policy.
Right now, districts are writing their policies for this fall. Some, such as San Diego School District, recently brought back mask mandates, despite anemic evidence that masks reduce transmission in schools. Students in Los Angeles Unified School District will still be mostly eating outside and physically distant if inside. Students deserve a full year of normal experiences, including proms, science labs, homecomings, and in-person graduations, where the principal stands on the stage, shakes each kid’s hand, and wishes them good luck in life. The CDC needs to stand up for the nation’s schoolchildren and make sure that, this year, these formative experiences happen in all districts—not just the ones that chose to ignore the CDC’s guidance.
Photo by David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images