Massachusetts educators and families welcomed updated guidelines released Friday from the nation’s top public health agency that say in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing, and other coronavirus containment strategies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance for getting students back to classrooms said that vaccination of teachers, though important, is not a prerequisite for reopening, and there is strong evidence now that schools can safely reopen, especially at lower grade levels.
But the agency’s guidance is only that. The CDC cannot force schools to reopen because such decisions are made at the state and local level, and CDC officials were careful to say they are not calling for a mandate that all US schools be reopened.
The new federal guidance includes many of the same measures backed by the CDC prior to the beginning of the school year last fall, but it suggests them more forcefully. It emphasizes that all of the recommendations must be implemented strictly and consistently to keep school safe.
It also provides more detailed suggestions about what type of schooling should be offered given different levels of virus transmission, with differing advice for elementary, middle, and high schools.
The reopening of public schools in Massachusetts has been contentious. Governor Charlie Baker called for districts to bring back as many students as possible, citing evidence of low rates of in-school transmission. Teachers unions have countered that better safety measures must first be in place for educators, such as frequent coronavirus testing, before returning full time.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the recommendations will help provide clearer answers for her and other big-city school leaders as they negotiate with teachers unions to reopen schools.
“Right now, we’re all just doing our own thing,” Cassellius told a Massachusetts Institute of Technology webinar Friday shortly before the guidance was released.
But she urged the Biden administration, if it is serious about returning students to school in the president’s first 100 days, to push states to offer teachers vaccines immediately, which 26 states and Washington, D.C., currently do.
In Massachusetts, educators were moved back in line behind all senior citizens and are now slated to qualify at the end of Phase 2, which is scheduled to run from February through March.
The decision to delay vaccines for educators was criticized by the heads of the state’s largest teachers unions, one of whom compared the plan to the “Hunger Games,” forcing districts to compete for limited resources.
“If they really want to put out these aspirational plans for us, we need some really clear guidance on how we do that,” Cassellius said.
In Boston, most students have been at home for nearly a year, with only a small number of high-needs students, including English learners and those with disabilities, returning to classrooms part time. District officials said recently that even when students return to classrooms over the next two months, many will continue to learn online so their classmates studying from home can participate in the same lessons.
Across Massachusetts, whether a student is home or in a classroom depends on their district. Of the state’s nearly 1 million public school students, about 450,000 — fewer than half — were in the classroom at least part time in the fall, according to state education officials.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education conducted a survey of school districts this week to gather updated numbers and is still waiting on several districts to respond, according to Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education.
Teachers unions praised the federal guidance and its emphasis on safety precautions and their importance.
But they cautioned that lower-income districts — which have typically seen higher COVID rates — need more funding to be able to satisfy the CDC’s recommendation that even high-risk districts open for in-person learning, at least for elementary school students, or, if they conduct COVID testing, for all students.
“If I knew everybody that walked into the building was virus-free, then you have very different circumstances than what we have right now,” Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts, said in an interview Friday. “That’s great, but all those things cost money, if we’re serious about this.”
In many well-resourced suburban districts, like Medway, all elementary school students are in school five days a week because the district hired more educators to reduce class sizes, Kontos said. But cash-strapped districts struggling to reopen schools, like Chelsea, Lawrence, and Lynn, don’t have that luxury — and they also have to pay more to upgrade their old school buildings’ ventilation systems.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, also commended the new guidance, saying in a statement, “For the first time since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, we have clear, actionable safety measures to keep both students and teachers safe.”
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, praised the recommendations but renewed the push to get teachers vaccinated under a plan the union submitted to the state Department of Public Health.
“Teachers and other school employees want nothing more than to resume or increase in-person learning,” Najimy said in a statement.
President Biden has vowed to get the majority of schools back to in-person teaching by the end of his first 100 days in office.
The guidelines tackle an area that has been a source of frustration for many families in Massachusetts: communication of positive COVID tests among people in schools.
The CDC said school administrators should notify staff, teachers, and families of any COVID cases — while maintaining patient privacy — and notifications should be accessible to those with disabilities and with limited English.
In many districts across the state, families receive alerts that describe “a district employee” as having tested positive, not specifying the school or the person’s role, and often not translated into families’ spoken languages, said Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, an education advocacy group.
“That’s the most important piece” of the guidance, Rodrigues said. “If my kid has been in direct contact or at risk of being exposed, parents have a right to that information, and we haven’t been getting it.”
Rodrigues also praised the CDC’s clarity that schools should be the first facilities to open and the last to close amid the pandemic. Black and brown families are less likely to feel comfortable sending their children to school due to the systems breaking their trust, she said, and white families are starting to feel similarly that the decisions around schools are based more on politics than science.
“We don’t trust a lot of the folks that aren’t experts and aren’t the CDC to be calling the shots,” she said. “That’s why it’s really important that we have direct guidance from these guys today.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.