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NEA News

NEA: CDC Guidance Good First Step - But Now It’s Time For Action

With clear guidance, leaders cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow and which students get resources to keep them safe.
social distancing in school (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
Published: 02/12/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Five mitigation strategies are essential: masks, social distance, hand washing, healthy school buildings, and a system of testing, tracing and quarantining.
  2. The CDC calls for resources to overcome longstanding inequities in schools.
  3. NEA President Becky Pringle: Lawmakers need to be able to look educators, students, and parents in the eyes and ensure that they are safe.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today released an operational strategy guide for the safe delivery of in-person instruction at K-12 schools. The Department of Education also issued a plain-language companion to the CDC guidance. It’s the first new school-specific guidance issued by the CDC during the Biden administration, and it has been eagerly awaited by families and educators who want to get physically back to in-person learning as soon as possible, as safely possible.   

“Schools should be the safest place in any community. Now that we have clear CDC guidance, state and local decision makers need to be able to look educators, students, and parents in the eyes and ensure that they are safe with full confidence,” says NEA President Becky Pringle.   

Educators have been failed by too many politicians who have defied common sense, ignored health and science, and divided communities, she adds, but now, with a partner in the White House, we have the opportunity to do this right, to do it safely and to do it as quickly as resources allow.   

“Congress must invest in America and provide the funding and resources that our students, educators and families need,” Pringle says.  

 Five Essential Strategies  

The guidance calls for “layering” five mitigation strategies that are essential to safe delivery of in-person instruction. All five measures must be in place “to provide the greatest level of protection,” the agency says.   

  • Requiring the “universal and correct use of masks” by everyone in all settings;  
  • Strictly enforcing physical distancing of at least six feet if community transmission rates are substantial or high and to “the greatest extent possible” where rates are lower;  
  • Requiring hand-washing and respiratory etiquette and providing the necessary supplies and training;  
  • Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, which includes disinfection and ventilation; 
  • Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine. 

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The guide also calls for engagement with the entire school community to develop and implement successful reopening plans and provides a “phased mitigation” framework for deciding how to provide instruction and extracurriculars based on community transmission rates as well as whether the district or school uses screening testing in addition to other strategies.  

According to the guidance, if community transmission is low but school and community mitigation strategies are not implemented or inconsistently implemented, then the risk of exposure and subsequent transmission in a school will increase. Alternately, if community transmission is high, but school and community mitigation strategies are implemented and strictly followed as recommended, then the risk of transmission in a school will decrease. 

In-person instruction is prioritized over extracurricular activities, including sports, but they can take place, the guidance says, "if they can be held outdoors, with physical distancing of 6 feet or more." In communities with high transmission, they say, these activities should be virtual only. 

Regarding accommodations, the CDC continues to emphasize that high-risk educators and students and those with high-risk family members may require accommodations such as remote learning to protect their health and safety. 

Equity Concerns  

The CDC guidance also calls for resources to overcome longstanding inequities between schools. “Plans for safe delivery of in-person instruction in K-12 schools must consider efforts to promote fair access to healthy educational environments for students and staff," the agency says.  

  • Students in under-resourced communities have suffered disproportionately from lost learning opportunities, while also facing the greatest risk of severe effects from COVID-19 and the highest rates of illness and mortality in their communities.  

  • The CDC calls for resources to address these disparities in funding to implement all mitigation measures, address healthcare needs, improve digital learning, and in prioritization for vaccines and testing.  
  • Schools that serve populations at risk of learning loss should be prioritized for reopening in-person instruction.  

““We must also recognize that CDC standards still aren’t being met in too many of our schools. Many schools, especially those attended by Black, brown, indigenous, and poor white students, have severely outdated ventilation systems and no testing or tracing programs," says Pringle. "Leaders cannot pick and choose which guidelines to follow and which students get resources to keep them safe." 


The guidance does not suggest that all school employees must be vaccinated, instead it describes vaccination as another mitigation strategy to "layer" on top of the other strategies described above as essential. 

  • States and localities decide vaccine priority. CDC’s guidance calls for states to consider giving high priority to educators after health care workers and long-term-care facility residents because vaccinating educators will make schools safer.  

  • CDC states that educator access to vaccinations is not a precondition for safely reopening schools for in-person instruction, but universal implementation of the five key mitigations measures are preconditions to safe in-person operations.
  • Schools need to continue mitigation measures even after educators have been vaccinated. 

While NEA applauds the CDC’s call for essential mitigation efforts, resources to address equity issues, and its acknowledgement that the virus and its mutations remain dangerous and that high-risk students and staff must be allowed to work remotely, there are areas of concern.  

"The guidance says that in-person instruction, even at the highest levels of community transmission, can be safe if all mitigation measures are provided and strictly adhered to; but as a practical matter, we know that the necessary resources, political will, and sense of shared community responsibility are sorely lacking in far too many places,” says NEA senior policy analyst Joel Solomon, head of NEA’s Health and Safety Team.  

What this could lead to, Solomon says, is a push to reopen school buildings even when it’s not safe.  

NEA and school communities around the country are, however, gratified that the CDC has issued guidance that calls for clear strategies that, if followed and resourced, will bring us closer to safer schools. NEA will continue to advocate for funding through passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.  

“Today, the science continues to back what educators, families and health experts have been saying for months: we can and must provide students the opportunity to return to in-person learning, but we also must ensure that every school has the effective measures in place to keep students and educators safe,” Pringle says. “The new CDC guidance is a good first step, but now it’s time for action.  If they are applied universally in every community and the resources are put in place equitably for all students, our school buildings will be safe for in-person learning.” 

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.