Some Thoughts on the CDC’s New School Guidance

I realize last week much of the nation was watching jury nullification happen in real time (aka ‘the impeachment trial’), but last week, the CDC released an “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation.” For the first time in a long time, I feel like we’re not fucking things up, and, it’s actually a very good guidance. Note that I’m using the word guidance, since the CDC has no regulatory authority, and I doubt the Biden administration will attempt to coerce states and municipalities to follow these guidelines.

I won’t go through the entire document–it’s 38 pages long, and unlike Redfield-era documents, is full of policy, not platitudes)–but there are two areas I do want to discuss: thresholds and testing. Let’s start with testing.

The good news is that the guidelines strongly encourage testing. When a someone in a classroom tests positive, the “close contacts” should go into quarantine for either seven days with follow up testing or fourteen days without testing. Unlike previous definitions of close contacts, these can’t be fudged by unethical administrators and school boards. That said, there’s a lot of wiggle room to avoid testing or perform limited testing, which, in part, reflects the reality of the infrastructure for testing. There was an opportunity here for CDC to push more testing capacity, and I think that opportunity was partially missed.

The report establishes really good guidelines for risk–surprisingly strict ones. Essentially, there should no ‘normal’ K-12 instruction until daily new cases drop below 7 per 100,000 people (it’s actually phrased as less than 50 new cases per week per 100,000, but it’s the same thing), and the percent positive rate is less than eight percent. Double those new case numbers (or ≥10% positive) means grades 7-12 should be virtual. On the one hand, only about ten percent of counties in the U.S. would meet these thresholds (as of Sunday). On the other hand, that reflects just how badly we’ve done at controlling the virus.

For the D.C. readers, we’re not even close to that level of prevalence. In D.C., we had the following stretches where we would have met the CDC guidelines: June 15-July 11, Sept. 1 – Sept. 14, and Sept. 21 – Oct. 5 (the latter period was hovering right at the breakpoint). If these guidelines had existed, it would have been much harder for the mayor and the Council to keep businesses open during the pre-Thanksgiving increase–which is what killed us. It’s also interesting because the D.C. administration spent the last few weeks shitting on the teachers unions, when it’s pretty clear the unions were more right than wrong (especially for middle and high school education).

Importantly, the CDC and the federal government–there has been no sniping at this report by the White House politicos (or the president)–have established some benchmarks based on prevalence and testing capacity for a return to normal (or some approximation thereof). This is a long overdue kick in the ass, and I can’t help but wonder how many lives would have been saved if there had been more pressure placed on states and local governments to lower both of these metrics so students could return to school. Admittedly, sociopaths like DeSantis and Cuomo (many governors akshually) would have done whatever they wanted to do anyway, but, at least, it would have been harder because parents want to send their kids back to school.

Better late than never, I suppose, but it’s far too late for far too many.

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