Despite  a strong federal push to open schools during the first ten months of the  pandemic, there was inadequate federal guidance about how to safely open schools. In the absence of national guidance, over 13,000 school districts across the country worked with their state, health department, school leaders, and schools to develop thousands of school opening plans and mitigation strategies during the COVID pandemic. The result is a hodge-podge of school planning and COVID mitigation strategies across the country.

 “Rather than a political push to reopen schools, the update is a measured, data-driven effort to expand on old recommendations and advise school leaders how to “layer” the most effective safety precautions.” -NPR

This changed on February 12, 2021 when the CDC released new guidance to help school leaders bring students safely into the classroom, while simultaneously establishing mitigation plans to keep students in the classroom. The 33-page document extensively covers:

  • Health equity considerations

  • How to maintain safe in-person instruction at K-12 schools: layered mitigation strategies, community transmission indicators, phased mitigation, testing, and learning modes (in-person, hybrid, or virtual)

  • Additional COVID-19 prevention measures: testing and vaccination

Health Equity Considerations.

Schools must recognize the long-standing social and health inequities among racial, ethnic, and economically-disadvantaged communities. As a result, schools must adjust communication, mitigation, education options, and resource allocation strategies in order to meet community needs and concerns.

Five Layered Mitigation Strategies.

The five key mitigation strategies for safe open schools are:

  • Universal and correct use of masks

  • Physical distancing (at least 6 feet), including cohorting, staggered scheduling, and more

  • Handwashing and respiratory etiquette

  • Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities

  • Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine

Community Transmission Indicators.

Underpinning the CDC guidance about how and when schools should open is whether a school can fully implement the five key mitigation strategies. This is combined with close monitoring of two community COVID transmission indicator numbers: 1) total new cases/100,000 persons in the last 7 days, and 2) percentage of positive COVID tests in the last 7 days. The CDC uses a color-coded chart to clarify school opening guidance:

  • Schools with low (blue) or moderate (yellow) community spread of COVID are encouraged to consider reopening in full for in-person learning.

  • Schools with substantial community transmission (orange) are recommended to use more limited reopening models (e.g., hybrid instruction) for all grade levels to maximize social distancing and reduce transmission.

  • Schools with high community transmission (red) are encouraged to offer hybrid instruction for elementary schools; however, it is recommended that middle and high schools be virtual-only except in specific circumstances.

Phased Mitigation, Learning Modes, and Testing.

The CDC recommends that school decisions regarding learning modes (in-person, hybrid, or virtual) should be based on local COVID trends, evidence of successful mitigation strategies, and school COVID case and quarantine data. It also suggests the prioritization of school and school activities, as follows:

  • K-12 schooling over all other non-essential business/activities

  • In-person instruction over extracurricular activities

  • In-person grade school over middle and high school

Additional COVID-19 Prevention in Schools.

Both testing and vaccination can help to prevent COVID outbreaks.

With this guidance, the CDC re-emphasizes that safely opening schools should be prioritized over opening non-essential businesses and activities. 

S is for Safety is looking forward to seeing the impact of the updated guidance. Hopefully, the guidance will facilitate safe reopening of schools across the country as soon as the community transmission rates permit it; however, current rates across the U.S. show that few school districts have low community transmission, while more than four-fifths of school districts have substantial community COVID transmission. Nonetheless, school districts should evaluate and update their opening plans based on these CDC guidelines to protect students and adults in schools. 

G is for CDC Safe School Guidance. It is good to have guidance. The hard part is following it. 

Your @safeFCPS Communications Lead


CDC. Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation. (February 12, 2021). (note: Specific CDC guidance cited comes entirely from this document

Turner, Corey; Kamanetz, Anya, and Keith, Tamara. CDC Offers Clearest Guidance Yet For Reopening Schools. NPR. (Feb 12, 2021).