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CDC guidelines for reopening schools: What's real?

What will it really take to put children back in school buildings safely this fall?
/ Source: TODAY

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a "Schools Decision Tool" this week with recommendations for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parents are reacting strongly — either in relief or in outrage — at the changes the recommended CDC guidelines for reopening schools would cause. While alarmist posts on social media about the recommendations have upset many, the reality of the CDC guidelines is not so black-and-white.

The new CDC guidelines aim to help school administrators figure out how to safely open  schools in the fall.
The new CDC guidelines aim to help school administrators figure out how to safely open schools in the fall.CDC

The CDC tool offers specific suggestions for how to ensure the safety of students and faculty and staff if schools reopen in the fall. These include detailed recommendations for hygiene and face coverings, cleaning and disinfecting, classroom layouts and lunchtime procedures, and class and bus schedules.

It's not a simple checklist. The CDC states each school "should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community."

After the CDC released the guidelines, some of their recommendations were paraphrased in memes that went viral on social media. In simplifying the recommendations into memes, a few essential words were left out, making them seem like rules instead of suggestions.

For instance, the CDC recommends that schools "teach and reinforce use of cloth face coverings," while acknowledging that "face coverings may be challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings."

So the CDC advises that staff and students should wear masks "as feasible," especially when physical distancing is hard to do. It says that children younger than 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or anyone who would be unable to remove the face covering without help should not wear them.

But the memes paraphrasing the guidelines just state, "Wear face masks if over the age of 2."

Although the meme says things like "No field trips, assemblies, or external organizations," the actual recommendation from the CDC is to "limit" these activities or pursue alternatives "as possible." It recommends the same for areas like playground equipment: "Clean and disinfect as much as possible."

Memes paraphrasing the CDC guidelines for reopening schools spread over social media. In the translation, though, a few important words were left out that made the guidelines seem like absolute rules instead of suggestions.
Memes paraphrasing the CDC guidelines for reopening schools spread over social media. In the translation, though, a few important words were left out that made the guidelines seem like absolute rules instead of

Parents have mixed feelings about what the CDC guidelines might mean for their children.

Juliana Bloom, a mother of two children ages 8 and 10 in Maitland, Florida, told TODAY Parents she believes the CDC's recommendations are reasonable, but the memes spreading around social media make them seem like they are not.

"Masks are not required, they are to be 'taught' and 'encouraged,' especially when kids have to be close to one another," she noted. "Limiting class size and movement around the campus to avoid spread of the disease is reasonable too. No, it’s not ideal, but there’s a global pandemic."

If schools don't implement measures like these, Bloom said, "We will end up back on full lockdown again as outbreaks spread through schools. I’d rather my kids be able to attend school and have some social interaction than none at all."

The CDC recommendations are necessary to save lives, Dr. Céline Gounder told TODAY Parents. Gounder is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine & Infectious Diseases at NYU School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital and hosts the podcasts "AMERICAN DIAGNOSIS" and "EPIDEMIC."

"We have to get used to the fact that we're looking at a new normal for the next year or so," said Gounder. "If we want to minimize the damage to our economy and social lives during that new normal, it will mean having to make some compromises."

This includes masks and distancing for children at school, she said. "Wearing a mask and abiding by six-feet rules have become political statements when they are in fact evidence-based public health measures."

Until there is a vaccine, Gounder said, these basic public health measures will be our only defense to suppress a resurgence of the virus without more shelter-in-place orders.

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"Am I excited and happy about all these restrictions? No, of course not," New Jersey mom Vera Hough told TODAY Parents.

Hough's daughter Maggie, 18, is heading to Bard College in the fall. Her son Thomas, 11, suffered a brain injury after contracting meningitis as a newborn in the NICU. He is blind, non-verbal and non-ambulatory.

Hough noted she is not an expert in public health. "But I am kind of an expert on what you do when life happens and you were busy making other plans. You make the best of it," she said.

"Why would I boycott school just because it doesn't look the way it used to, the way we expected it to? My son's life — which, by the way, was nearly ruined by a microbe that ravaged his body in a sterilized hospital environment — doesn't look the way we expected. So we found a school for him that isn't spooked and does their best, day after day, to make his life better. When they are permitted to open their doors, whatever the conditions are, I will be there with bells on," Hough said.

Blogger Meredith Ethington wrote a post on Facebook voicing her concerns about the new guidelines.

"I'm thinking out loud and throwing worst case scenarios out there, of course," Ethington wrote. "I know there are good people putting a lot of time and energy and thought into this. But, I know there are a lot of people that will take these recommendations as gospel, and that worries me.

"I don't want my kid sitting alone in a square on the playground shouting to his friends through a muffled sounding mask," she wrote.

Some parents may opt out. Alisen Prida, a Longwood, Florida, mother of three boys ages 7, 11, and 13, told TODAY Parents that she would rather join a homeschool co-op before sending her children back to a school with the current CDC guidelines.

Coming from a family of educators, Prida said, "I believe I could give my children the education they need and the social interaction that would be better for both their educational AND psychological growth than the public school could provide if it were to change like these guidelines state."

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