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CDC Guidelines For In-Person Learning Prove To Be An Impossible Task For Many Schools

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that he wants most schools, at least, kindergarten through eighth grade to be open full time by his 100th day in office. That's at the end of April. But there's a lot of distance between getting most schools fully open and adhering to CDC reopening guidance. Anya Kamenetz from the NPR education team has been following this, and she's here to break it down.

Welcome back, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: First, give us a status update. How close is President Biden to achieving his school reopening goal?

KAMENETZ: I think it's fair to say he's getting closer, right? It's been a full year since public schools went remote in March across the country. And since then, plenty of places have found different ways to reopen. The organization Burbio estimates about 4 in 10 students right now have the option to attend school full time, with another quarter of students having the ability to go hybrid or part time.

CORNISH: So are people looking at this as glass full, glass half-empty? Is this considered momentum?

KAMENETZ: You know, it's really a paradox, I would say, because different places around the country have had such different experiences to date. A lot of the schools that are already open may not be following the latest CDC recommendations. And on the other hand, the places where teachers and families are especially reluctant to go back to the classroom in person, they might be able to point to this new guidance as a reason to stay closed.

CORNISH: Why is that?

KAMENETZ: Well, one bone of contention is transmission rates, right? There's a lot of COVID still in the country. And CDC guidance recommends that in what it calls the red zones where transmission is highest, even elementary schools, never mind middle and high schools, should be sticking to hybrid learning. That's just a few days a week for students. And at this moment, it's estimated three-quarters of students are enrolled in districts located in these red zones.

CORNISH: All right. So just so I understand what you're saying, unless and until caseloads fall more sharply, there are schools where basically you can't be open five days a week and follow these CDC guidelines at the same time.

KAMENETZ: Exactly. Exactly. It's a real contradiction. And CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was asked about this last week, and she sounded optimistic. She said the numbers are, in fact, getting better in lots of places around the country. So districts should be planning to expand their in-person learning.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: So our numbers are coming down. I would actually invite schools to lean in and to look at what is needed so that - in the road map to try and get more and more children back to school.

CORNISH: Is this just about transmission rates, or are there other sticking points to getting students back in classrooms more days of the week?

KAMENETZ: Yeah, and this is a big one, Audie. In fact, it could actually be a problem even into the fall. The CDC says that schools should try to keep students six feet apart. That sounds familiar, right? But you know, elementary school classrooms in the United States - they tend to have more than 20 students in them, on average. And if you look around the country, most public schools in the past year have not come up with the extra cash to have outdoor classrooms, temporary buildings, not to mention hiring more teachers, which they would need to do to reduce class sizes.

So that leaves essentially two options. Either schools are not following the six-foot rule or they're not bringing most of their students back full time, five days a week. Again, that's Biden's goal. And I just want to underline that in, you know, big-city districts like New York with older buildings, multiple schools sharing one building, there's just no real room to space students six feet apart. And there's no indication that that would change even by next fall.

CORNISH: Looking down the road, is there anything else that could change that might allow more schools to bring back students safely?

KAMENETZ: The big one, of course, is vaccines. Even though the CDC said that education workers don't have to get vaccinated in order for schools to open, more and more states are working to put teachers toward the front of the line and hopefully ease their minds. Still, the vaccine is not yet approved for children. And Dr. Anthony Fauci said recently they're not likely to see any information on elementary school students with the vaccine until at least the first quarter of 2022 - so essentially a whole other calendar year in which schools will have to consider mitigating the spread of COVID in schools, whether that's with masks, with social distancing or something else.

CORNISH: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's education team.

Thanks for looking into it.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.