PITTSBURGH (AP/KDKA) The nation’s top public health agency on Friday provided a roadmap for reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic, emphasizing mask wearing and social distancing and saying vaccination of teachers is important but not a prerequisite for reopening.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the long-awaited update, but it cannot force schools to reopen, and agency officials were careful to say they are not calling for a mandate that all U.S. schools be reopened.

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They said there is strong evidence now that in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels, and the guidance is targeted at schools that teach kindergarten up to 12th grade.

The agency also emphasized hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people from others in a school.

School districts here in western Pennsylvania are really doing their own thing. Some are operating fully remote, some are using a hybrid model, and some are learning in-person. Most parents say they want their child inside the classroom.

Pittsburgh Public Schools decided to postpone students’ return to the classroom until after April 6. Many teachers and other staff were concerned about heading back inside the classroom before they got the vaccine.

It’s not a mandate, but the new guidelines have local educators talking.

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“You’ve got blue, yellow, orange and red going safest to least safe. Then in red, you have the ability to test staff and not the ability,” said Matt Edgell with Pennsylvania State Education Association.

The color-coded chart will give school districts a road map on what type of learning model to follow based on community transmission. The goal is to follow a layered mitigation effort focused on masking and distancing.

(Photo: KDKA)

“Time for handwashing now is also mentioned. It’s very common sense, but it’s not what the rule or the guideline or law is — it’s whether it’s followed properly. So we are hoping it’s followed properly,” Edgell said.

In Pennsylvania, the process to get kids back to school has already begun and will increase in the coming weeks.

“There are 200,000 more kids back in school in Pennsylvania than there was a month ago. We are moving in the right direction. What I will say is we just need a little patience more than anything,” Edgell said.

A key component to these guidelines is vaccinations. The CDC Director said the department is encouraging all states to prioritize educators.

“It’s inefficient right now and what we are asking for are better efficiencies and now with more production up, more dispersal so those teachers, educators, custodians can all be 1A so we can all get back in the classroom,” Edgell said.

So, what happens if community spread climbs and surpasses the numbers set forth in the red color chart? The CDC said it will have to evaluate and consider changing the guidelines yet again.

The guidance was issued as President Joe Biden faces increasing pressure to deliver on his promise to get the majority of schools back to in-person teaching by the end of his first 100 days in office. The White House said this week that a national strategy would be guided by science.

There’s wide agreement that learning in the classroom is more effective and that students can face isolation and learning setbacks at home. But teachers unions in some areas say schools have failed to make buildings safe enough to return.

CDC officials emphasized that in-person learning has not been identified as a substantial driver of coronavirus spread in U.S. communities, and that transmission among students is now considered relatively rare.

The CDC also stressed that the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible. The agency urged local officials to assess whether a bad outbreak is occurring in a community when making decisions about sending adults and children in to schools.

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