Understanding the CDC’s New Guidelines for School Reopening

So, my school is in a red zone… now what?

February 17, 2021

This past Friday, the CDC released new guidelines to help schools reopen and hopefully stay open. The good news is, according to the CDC, there is mounting evidence that schools can open responsibly so long as mitigation strategies are in place. Even in “red zones” with high transmission, strong mitigation efforts like routine testing can help keep the doors open.

The new guidelines emphasize that schools must continue being cautious. But so long as mitigation strategies are in place, according to the CDC, it is very much possible to safeguard everyone’s health while holding classes in person. Specifically, they recommend the following 5 measures:

  • Universal mask wearing 
  • Physical distancing
  • Frequent hand-washing and covering coughs and sneezes
  • Keeping all facilities clean
  • Contact tracing along with isolation and quarantine when needed

The new recommendations also include a color-coded system to help schools respond to COVID-19 rates in their area. The basic idea is that schools in areas with higher rates should take more precautions. In areas with the highest rates—called “red zones”—routine testing becomes particularly important.

Blue and yellow zones – Low to moderate transmission

Schools in blue and yellow zones can be open at 100% capacity, but everyone should maintain a distance of at least six feet whenever possible. The wiggle room around the distance requirement follows the opinion of some public health experts that keeping three feet apart is sufficient for younger students. 

The big difference between blue and yellow zones are the guidelines for sports and extracurricular activities. In yellow zones, everyone should keep at least six feet apart during sports or extracurriculars. In blue zones, it’s enough to keep that distance whenever possible.

Orange zones – Significant transmission

In orange zones, schools should be in hybrid mode or have reduced attendance. Everyone should keep six feet apart—no wiggle room. And sports and extracurriculars should only be held outside with strict distancing.

Red zones – High transmission

At the highest level of transmission, elementary schools should be in hybrid mode or have reduced attendance. Strict distancing is required and all sports and extracurriculars must be virtual only. When it comes to middle and high schools, the guidance depends on whether the school has routine testing in place.

Without testing: Middle and high schools should be virtual only unless they have only a few cases and put strict measures in place.

With testing: Like elementary schools, middle and high schools can stay open in hybrid mode or with reduced attendance.

The Takeaway: Knowledge is Power

To quote the new guidelines, “K–12 schools should be the last settings to close… and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.” Testing is an important part of keeping schools open because it gives us vital information about what’s going on around us—at all levels of transmission. Whether cases are rising or falling, it allows us to respond appropriately, neither being reckless nor unnecessarily strict.

For more information on CDC guidelines for school reopening, check out their COVID-19 mitigation toolkit. And if you need help bringing easy, affordable testing to your school, don’t hesitate to reach out.