PASCO COUNTY, Fla. - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released comprehensive new guidelines Friday for reopening K-12 schools nationwide.
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“I don’t think they change a ton in Florida because we have been open, but I do think they reinforce the things we know work to stop the spread of COVID," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
The guidelines, Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation, outline five key strategies: universal and correct use of masks, physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, and contact tracing. Union leaders in Pasco and Pinellas Counties echoed Baxter-Jenkins in saying these are measures already in place in their districts.
“They have been very emphatic on these principles, and I think, for the most part, they’ve worked," said Don Peace, president of United School Employees of Pasco. "In our state and in our county, I think we’ve proven that with the proper guidelines, students can get back into the brick and mortar classroom. They can enjoy the socialization of other students, and parents can resume a more normal activity lifestyle, get back to work.”
The document also lays out operational plans for schools no matter the level of community transmission in their area. For instance, it notes that "schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation efforts in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely."
Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego said in a statement on the guidelines, "Last spring, Pinellas County Schools created a medical advisory task force to assist in the development of a reopening plan that aligned with CDC guidelines, using layered mitigation strategies including universal use of masks, handwashing, physical distancing to the greatest extent possible, enhanced sanitation practices, and contact tracing in collaboration with the Department of Health - Pinellas. We continue to offer both in-person and virtual learning options. The district also regularly evaluates its protocols with the Department of Health and medical advisory task force to review the effectiveness and alignment of our multi-layered mitigation strategies."
According to the guidance, mask wearing and physical distancing are two strategies that should be prioritized. The head of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association said that's proven to be more of a challenge as the school year goes on.
“Our population in the school is much larger than it was in August. So, the six feet is almost impossible to achieve within the classrooms. They do use it for meetings and other things, but it’s more like between three and four feet in the classroom now," said PCTA President Nancy Velardi.
Velardi said enforcement of the mask policy has also been an issue at some sites, but the measure has been successful when used correctly. She also said contact tracing is taking longer than it did earlier in the year.
“The problem is, the DOH has been so very busy that sometimes that process takes a little bit too long. By the time they get verification on the case and go through the entire process of determining who needs to be quarantined, quarantine time is almost over or completely over," Velardi said.
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran issued a statement in response to the guidance. It said in part, "CDC guidance is informative, although Florida school districts, public charter schools, and private schools should stay the course they began in Summer 2020." It goes on to say, "As Commissioner, I want to be particularly clear that all K-12 school districts and public charter schools should proceed with their Spring 2021 plans that were built on their successful fall 2020 reopening plans."
One change Baxter-Jenkins and Velardi said they'd like to see is for the state to make teachers eligible to receive vaccines.
“When your job means that you work in a room with between 20 and 40 other people all day long, you should be vaccinated," said Velardi.
“I do think the guidance solidifies that, beyond health care workers and those in nursing homes, school employees should be part of the essential employees we consider very high up in the vaccination list," said Baxter-Jenkins. "The amount of mental stress you would take off of them if they knew they were protected, again, I think would be a huge benefit we could do to people who’ve been keeping Florida open."
The guidance states that the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices does stress teachers should be prioritized in early phases of vaccination. It said teacher and school staff should be vaccinated following the phase that focuses on health care workers and residents of long term care facilities.