A briefing packet for federal emergency response teams details the steps schools should take to reopen safely.
WASHINGTON — Federal materials for reopening schools, shared the week President Trump demanded weaker guidelines to do so, said fully reopening schools and universities remained the “highest risk” for the spread of the coronavirus.
The 69-page document, obtained by The New York Times and marked “For Internal Use Only,” was intended for federal public health response teams to have as they are deployed to hot spots around the country. But it appears to have circulated the same week that Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would release new guidelines, saying that the administration did not want them to be “too tough.” It is unclear whether Mr. Trump saw the document, nor is it clear how much of it will survive once new guidance is completed.
(The cover page of the document is dated July 8, 2019, an obvious typographical error since the novel coronavirus did not exist then.)
What is clear is that federal health experts are using a road map that is vastly different from what Mr. Trump wanted.
While it is mostly a compilation of C.D.C. documents already posted online, it includes reopening plans drafted by states, districts and individual schools and universities. And the package, from the Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force, is pointed.
In a “talking points” section, the material is critical of “noticeable gaps” in all of the K-12 reopening plans it reviewed, though it identified Florida, Oregon, Oklahoma and Minnesota as having the most detailed.
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“While many jurisdictions and districts mention symptom screening, very few include information as to the response or course of action they would take if student/faculty/staff are found to have symptoms, nor have they clearly identified which symptoms they will include in their screening,” the talking points say. “In addition, few plans include information regarding school closure in the event of positive tests in the school community.”
And its suggestions for mitigating the risk of school reopenings would be expensive and difficult for many districts, like broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher.
The debate about school reopenings comes as the virus is spreading at its fastest pace yet across the country, a trend some attribute to states reopening prematurely this spring on a timeline encouraged by Mr. Trump. Now some states are pausing their reopening plans and in some cases reimposing restrictions to contain the spread. Schools in California have had to cancel their plans for in-person classes as the virus surges.
Groups representing education leaders praised the document, saying after months of mixed messages from the federal government, the inclusion of specific plans could serve as a blue print for schools and families to help navigate the uncertainty that the fall will bring.
“What it tells us is left to its own devices, the C.D.C. can do a pretty good job in compiling a comprehensive document that shows the complexity of what institutions are facing,” said Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 college and university presidents and higher education executives.
“The good news is, this is very thoughtful and complete,” he added. “The bad news is, it’s never been released.”
A breakdown of state plans included in the briefing also identified state and university proposals that the task force appeared to see as models. The document identified as “examples of consistency with C.D.C. guidance” institutions like Arizona Western University, which will offer virtual services to students and staff members throughout the fall, and Hampton University, where in-person class sizes and gatherings will be reduced to 50 percent. It also highlights a number of states, like Georgia, where families are offered an option of in-person and virtual classes.
And as Mr. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were trying to pressure local schools to comply with their reopening vision, the document was expressly saying the federal government should not override local judgment.
“These C.D.C. considerations are meant to supplement — not replace — any federal, state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations” with which schools must comply, the packet states in bold lettering. “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, and acceptable and be tailored to the needs of each community.”
The document was among material for federal response teams that are being dispatched to hot spots around the country for short periods of time. The teams are charged with helping local public health officials address the outbreak, including identifying the source, if possible, and what additional support from the federal government might help. In doing this, the team could field questions about school safety plans.
“This is the document we needed six weeks ago,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, calling it “concise, accessible and actionable.”
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 15, 2020
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
What’s the best material for a mask?
- Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
- A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
- The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
- The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
- Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
- A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How can I protect myself while flying?
- If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
- If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
“While it is a great resource for superintendents as they navigate the myriad issues they need to address as they work to reopen schools,” he said, “it is also a great communication tool, a resource that can be shared with the community to help account for decisions being made and to share reliable, science-based information.”
Since May, the C.D.C. website has cautioned that full reopening would be “highest risk,” and that in both K-12 and higher education settings, the more people interact, “and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of Covid-19 spread.” The “lowest risk,” the guidelines say, would be for students and teachers to attend virtual-only classes — an option the administration this week began a full-court press against.
All week, the Trump administration has been raising the pressure on schools and universities to reopen with in-person education. On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that international students whose colleges went fully online would have to transfer to a school offering in-person classes or leave the country.
By Wednesday, Ms. DeVos had publicly chastised a public school district in Fairfax County, Va., for offering parents a choice of in-person classes two days a week or fully online instruction. The department and the president said they were exploring options for using federal funding as leverage to force full reopening.
That Wednesday, Mr. Trump rejected the C.D.C. guidelines, calling them “very tough & expensive” on Twitter. Then Mr. Pence announced that the C.D.C. would issue new recommendations next week. “We just don’t want the guidance to be too tough,” he said.
On Friday, after repeating threats of cutting off federal funding from schools that do not fully reopen — which he does not have the authority to do — Mr. Trump lashed out again.
“Now that we have witnessed it on a large scale basis, and firsthand, virtual learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning,” he wrote on Twitter. “Not even close! Schools must be open in the Fall.”
Noah Weiland contributed reporting.
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