(Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

The California Department of Public Health on Monday released a comparison of its guidelines for school reopenings with those issued Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It shows that on several significant criteria, California is more cautious in allowing students back in the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both the state and CDC cite the same research studies to explain their conclusions. Although they use different colors schemes to define levels of infection risk — CDC’s high-risk “red” tier is comparable to California’s most restrictive  purple tier — both the state’s and the CDC’s recommendations are strikingly similar.

Both also recommend vaccinating teachers as a priority but not a precondition for reopening schools, and both cite the benefit of extensive testing for COVID-19 infections among people who show no positive symptoms but don’t endorse requiring them to reopen. (The California Teachers Association demands both vaccinations and asymptomatic testing of staff and teachers as prerequisites for a return.) And both agree that a web of safety precautions — among them strict masking, 6-foot social distancing and extensive contact tracing to determine origins of transmissions — must be in place before sending students back to class.

But on levels of community transmissions permitting the return to school, the CDC’s recommendations are more permissive:

  • The CDC does not set a minimum community infection rate to allow elementary schools to bring back students. California’s regulations do not allow students in any grade for in-person instruction once the number of daily positive number of tests in a county rises above an average of 25 cases daily per 100,000 residents. Many counties remain above or slightly below that now.
  • CDC’s guidelines allow the return of students in middle and high schools once the average daily positive cases fall below 14.1 per 100,000; they would have to be in a hybrid model, at least initially, to reduce concentrations of students and staff. Under California health regulations, no middle or high schools can reopen until the positive case numbers falls below 7 per 100,000, the line between California’s purple and red tiers.

The distinctions are important because that boundary is becoming the battleground over reopening in California. The CTA, which enthusiastically agreed with many of the CDC’s guidelines, opposes reopening in any district where the caseload is in the purple tier — 7 or more positive cases per 100,000. In the fall, before the dangerous post-Thanksgiving COVID surge, some districts negotiated agreements not to return to school until caseloads reach lower infection tiers of red, orange or yellow.

Critics of Gov. Gavin Newsom demanding to open up schools sooner than the state recommends can point to the less restrictive CDC guidelines. Newsom, in turn, can argue that employee unions that are refusing to reopen elementary grades in the purple tier are inconsistent with the CDC’s definition of safe, as well as the state’s.

“The CDC guidelines highlight what countless California schools have learned first-hand by offering in-person instruction in the midst of the pandemic,” commented Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and government relations for the Association of California School Administrators. “With the proper mitigation efforts in place, we can keep students and staff while opening up our campuses.”

There is a second measure — the percentage of tests with positive COVID-19 results — that the California Department of Health and the CDC use to determine risk of reopening schools. The state’s comparison doesn’t include that but, like the caseload measure, the CDC’s is less restrictive than the state’s.

* Story originally published by EdSource.