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Biden school reopening guidance expected to focus on COVID mitigation, rather than teacher vaccination

Norah O'Donnell on exclusive Biden interview
Norah O'Donnell on exclusive Biden interview, reopening schools 05:35

The Biden administration's guidance on how schools can "safely open" will come from multiple federal agencies and departments, according to several people familiar with the plan. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to release an "operational strategy" advising that it would be safe for K-12 schools to reopen if they apply recommended "mitigation" practices, according to an email sent by an Education Department official soliciting feedback from education groups and obtained by CBS News. 

The CDC guidance, which is expected to be released this week, builds on guidelines already released by the agency, a federal official told CBS News. It's expected to focus on five areas of COVID-19 mitigation in schools, rather than relying on vaccinating teachers as a precondition for reopening. 

The mitigation practices include ensuring teachers and students wear masks, maintain proper social distancing and institute a good "hand hygiene" program with proper coughing and sneezing etiquette.

Advice on cleaning and ventilating facilities, implementing a strong contact tracing program and isolating and quarantining will also be included in the guidance, according to the official.

The Biden administration will be advising that teacher vaccinations are supplementary, suggesting that if school districts adhere to the recommended mitigation practices, mandatory vaccination of all teachers isn't a precondition for reopening schools. There was already a strong hint that this would be the stance adopted by the administration, since CDC Director Rochelle Walensky had already said as much last week.

"There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated," Walensky said Wednesday, reiterating that teacher vaccination was "not a prerequisite."  

But White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Walensky was speaking in her "personal capacity," since CDC guidance had not been released. 

This has been a point of contention for some teachers unions, which have insisted on vaccinating educators before schools can be reopened. However, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told Boston Public Radio on Friday vaccinating teachers was "not a precondition" for reopening. 

But teachers are already in a priority group for vaccination: according to COVID-19 vaccination recommendations established by the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, educators are in Phase 1b.

Teachers demand COVID safety upgrades before return to classroom 01:54

As of February 9, at least 26 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, Education Week notes.

The guidance is expected to encompass all K-12 students, unlike the current Biden White House goal for reopening schools, which only targets grades K-8. Asked for clarification of Mr. Biden's goal on Tuesday, Psaki said the goal is to reopen a "majority of schools — so more than 50%" with teachers instructing "at least one day a week" by day 100. 

But sixty-four percent of K-8 students are already being offered some form of in-person instruction, either full in-person instruction or a part-time hybrid model of learning, according to data collected and analyzed by Burbio and reported by CBS News.  

In an interview Sunday, President Biden told CBS News' Norah O'Donnell the guidance could be released as soon as Wednesday. But a federal official later said the release date would likely be Friday. Multiple officials told CBS News the guidance is still being finalized and could potentially change. 

"Soon after" the CDC announces its updated guidelines, the Education Department plans to release "volumes" of its own guidance, according to the email sent by Kimberly Watkins-Foote, the acting director of the Education Department's national engagement team.    

It will begin focusing on the "practical application" of CDC's guidance: how to plan for in-person learning and engagement and additional "supports" and "protections" for students and educators, with a focus on "trauma-informed approaches to meeting the social-emotional needs of students and staff," according to the email. This guidance will also advise districts on how to use funds allocated to schools and state and local governments to make schools safer.  

The second volume is expected in the "next couple of weeks" and contains ten topics for now, according to the email. The "draft topics" could change, but they currently address the social and emotional well being of both students and educators, how to bridge learning gaps that have come about because of COVID-19, "support for educators, including advancing educator diversity," online and in-person learning, school nutrition and, "digital equity." 

Another topic is "extended learning time," which may reflect a shift in the school calendar this year or changes to summer school, which is briefly referenced in Mr. Biden's national strategy plan for COVID-19.

The Education Department's guidance may also take a look at other concerns about "resource equity" across racial and socioeconomic concerns, "school discipline," and increased data collection "to support students, parents, and educators." Last week, the federal government announced a plan to track how many schools in the country are teaching in-person or virtually.  

The Education Department has begun to solicit feedback on these topics from education groups. On his first few days in office, Mr. Biden issued several executive orders directing the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a "handbook" for reopening schools.

The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The White House and the Education Department declined to comment.

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