The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that vaccinating teachers is not a requirement for reopening schools, an objective that President Biden has pegged for his first 100 days.
While public health officials agree that teachers and other school staff should be prioritized for shots, they’ve also highlighted the low rates of in-school transmission when schools take precautions, as laid out in a CDC-led report last week.
"There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing Wednesday. "Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools."
So far, 25 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have opened up vaccines to teachers. A panel of CDC advisers has recommended they are among the first groups to be vaccinated, but the timing is ultimately up to state and local officials.
"If we're waiting for this magic wand of the vaccine, we're just kicking this can down the road yet another 12 months," said Dr. Daniel Benjamin, a distinguished professor at Duke University School of Medicine and a co-lead of the program working with North Carolina schools that was cited by the CDC.
Dr. Benjamin and his colleagues focused on 11 school districts that reopened in the fall of 2020, which included more than 90,000 students and staff. They identified 32 in-school infections and no cases of student-to-staff transmission.
Benjamin stressed that the success of the schools’ reopening has not only been due to public health measures — such as mask wearing, distancing and hand washing — but also due to staff documentation of compliance and constant efforts to improve.
"There will always be a reason to keep schools closed," he said. "Ultimately, people have a choice. And what our position has been is: Use the public mitigation strategies. Here’s what to do."
Administration officials have paired the president’s goal of reopening schools with the need for more funding and resources, which are part of his proposed COVID relief bill. In press briefings, officials often answer questions about schools by also calling on Congress to pass the bill.
"That means that every school has the equipment and the resources to open safely — not just private schools or schools in wealthy areas, but all schools," Jeff Zients, the White House COVID Response Coordinator, said Wednesday. "And that's why we need the American Rescue Plan passed now."
In his first week, President Biden signed an executive order that called for federal agencies to advise state and local officials on school reopenings, provide technical support and collect data on school transmission, among other directives.
Biden’s 100-day plan includes the goal of reopening the majority of elementary and middle schools, though the administration hasn’t detailed how they’ll measure that goal.
"I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that’s in those schools, maintaining the facilities," Biden said in a press conference last week.
"The teachers, I know, they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment and a safe as you can rationally make it."
"We need a phased-in return tied to voluntary vaccination; baseline testing for students and staff; and accommodations for educators whose household members are at higher risk of COVID-19 illness and death," union representatives said in a statement.
A CDC advisory committee has recommended teachers and school staff be part of the second phase of vaccinations, which focuses on frontline essential workers, but their inclusion is up to states.
“We don't want to be too prescriptive so that they have these queues of people, and yet we don't want to be too open,” CDC Director Walensky said Wednesday. “So we've left that to the states to manage.”
Currently, the CDC recommends that schools open "as safely and as quickly as possible" based on indicators like community spread and a school’s ability to implement safety measures. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has promised clearer guidance from the CDC after last week’s initial report on transmission.
Dr. Benjamin, whose work with North Carolina schools includes regularly advising superintendents and officials, said access to medical expertise is another key to reopening success, which he acknowledged isn’t doable everywhere yet.
"You need a culture of continuous improvement and continuous lessons learned," he said. "The superintendents met weekly with us."
Benjamin and his colleagues hope to expand that collaboration to states outside North Carolina, but for now, he says, reopening schools doesn’t have to wait, even in communities with high rates of COVID-19.
"Community rates do not predict whether or not you're successful," he said.
"There are fires and earthquakes. We have plans on what to do in case there’s a fire or earthquake," Benjamin explained. "You’ve got to put in the mitigation first."