Stop Panicking About the CDC School Reopening Guidelines

We have to do something to get kids back to school in the fall.

Posted May 30, 2020

We have a choice. Either schools don’t reopen at all, or we find a way to send kids back to school in the coronavirus pandemic. There’s nothing easy about this, but the experts at the CDC have put out guidance to help. So how has a document where every other word is “if feasible” created such a stir?

My Facebook feed has gone crazy. The first time I saw a frantic mother post the supposed list of CDC guidelines, I thought, "I need to look those up." Later posts were by mothers swearing they would homeschool, not because they were afraid of their kids catching COVID-19, but because social media claimed there would be "sneeze guards" between the desks. "I really need to read the guidelines," I thought. 

Sure enough, the claims flooding social media were inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. The CDC has issued guidelines for school reopening, and the next school year does not sound super fun. Yet, these postings seem intentionally designed to upset people by leaving out key phrases from the original. Phrases like “when appropriate” and “as feasible.”

What did the CDC actually say? 

The CDC document starts with a simple breakdown of risk. It’s pretty basic stuff. “The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of Covid-19 spread,” explains the guideline.

Then the guideline goes through levels of risk based on different ways of doing school. The lowest risk? E-learning only. “More risk” comes into play when schools have small, in-person classes and take precautions. And schools take on the highest risk if they go back to school as usual, with full-sized classes and business as usual.

It’s the “more risk” category that everyone is freaking out about. Everybody is less likely to catch COVID-19 if the kids stay in smaller groups with the same teacher. It also makes sense that the virus will spread less if kids stay six feet apart, wear masks, and do not share objects.

Of course, many schools in the U.S. are packed full and there is simply no way to space desks six feet apart. That’s when schools might rotate schedules for school attendance or try a hybrid virtual and in-person class structure. And because crowded hallways and cafeterias could be an issue, the CDC offered the solution of eating lunch in the classrooms. 

If that sounds terrible, remember this: “COVID-19 is mostly spread by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough, or sneeze. It is thought that the virus may spread to hands from a contaminated surface and then to the nose or mouth, causing infection.” Hmmm. Maybe our kids keeping away from each other isn’t such a bad idea.

Why are parents so upset about coronavirus precautions?

I hate the thought of my kids not being out on the playground with their friends. Then again, since they only get 15 minutes of recess a day, maybe that’s not such an issue.

It is hard to imagine how middle schools and high schools are going to manage. Their entire structure works by moving to different classrooms and teachers. Never mind how funny it sounds to pretend that kindergarteners will actually keep their masks on or stop climbing on each other. And how are we going to go to work if the kids are at home half the days to accommodate rotating schedules?

But is that really why we are so upset? Consider how much more upset we would be if the CDC had simply said, “Stay with e-learning.” Or even worse, what if we were going back to school without doing anything to avoid getting coronavirus? No, when we think about it, we have to do something. It may be hard and disappointing, but we have to make it work.

What we are reacting to is grief. 

For so long, we were told it might just be two more weeks before things got better. The scientists and doctors knew that could not be true, but political leaders kept holding out that hope. 

More than 100,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus in the U.S., but numbers don't hit us the same way this does. Imagining our kids in masks sitting with desks six feet apart makes it painfully clear just how bad the coronavirus pandemic really is.

But grief can be managed. In fact, it’s a very productive process. Grieving means accepting our loss and how we feel about it until our head clears. That’s when we bounce back and find solutions. Maybe it’s time to stop freaking out about the school reopening guidelines, and start thinking about what is feasible.