CDC director Rochelle Walensky said Friday that teachers do not need to receive the coronavirus vaccination before returning to the classroom, reiterating a position the White House had previously dismissed.
Walensky said at a CDC meeting last week that vaccinating teachers "is not a prerequisite" for reopening schools. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki dismissed Walensky's statement, claiming the nation's top infectious disease expert spoke "in her personal capacity."
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But Walensky doubled down on her previous statement Friday during a teleconference that unveiled the CDC's new guidelines for school reopening. Walensky stressed that schools can begin opening before all teachers and faculty receive the vaccine.
"Again it's one of those layers of mitigation that we believe will help," she said, "but we believe and the science has demonstrated that schools can be reopened safely prior to all teachers being vaccinated."
While the CDC's new "phased mitigation" strategy calls for teachers to be prioritized during vaccine distribution, receiving the vaccine "should nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction."
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) called the administration's efforts "inadequate" in a statement released following the CDC conference.
"The recently released guidelines from the CDC affirms what many of us, including students and parents, have known for months: It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible,'" McCarthy said. "Despite this ‘science' that has been publicly available for weeks, the Biden Administration has watered down their ‘reopen' plans to an inadequate goal of '50 percent of classrooms, one day a week.' Families and students deserve better."
Vaccinating teachers and students did not make the CDC's list of top five essential mitigation strategies. Instead, the CDC asked schools to "prioritize" universal masking, social distancing, hand washing and "respiratory etiquette," cleaning school facilities regularly, and contact tracing students.
The new guidelines recommend that school districts base their reopening strategies on the severity of the coronavirus within their community. Districts in communities with "low" or "moderate" transmission rates can fully reopen K-12 classrooms. Schools in "substantial" or "high" transmission rate areas should consider some hybrid or remote learning strategies "unless they can strictly implement all mitigation strategies."
The White House this week walked back its plan to have schools open for in-person instruction within the first 100 days of Joe Biden's presidency. Psaki defined "in-person" teaching as allowing "some" students to be in a physical classroom "at least one day a week."
School districts with strong teachers' unions are less likely to reopen classrooms for face-to-face instruction, and many have demanded that their teachers receive the vaccine before returning to the classroom. Scientific evidence, however, has so far shown that the transmission rates of coronavirus in schools is rare.