Friday, May 22, 2020

How Hard Are CDC Guidelines To Follow

So now everyone is freaked out about the CDC "guidelines" as reported on that blue meme that was going around. This, of course, was the point-- to sell the idea that public schools will be like prisons, so everyone should pull their kids out. Because in the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, there are folks from your neighbor with the tin hat all the way up to the US Secretary of Education who see the pandemic as one more chance to dismantle public schools.  So the blue list was framed, worded, and occasionally misrepresented in order to create maximum outrage. Mission accomplished.

Let's look instead at the actual CDC guidelines. I won't lie-- as I pointed out when they were just a few suggestions, they are not particularly awesome. But let's take a look-- Just how big a challenge do schools face when it comes to re-opening in the fall?

You can see two versions of the same info, either here on the CDC website, which is more recent, or here on the leaked document starting on page 47. I'm going to use the leaked document and try to pick up some details that are on the website, which is a little more listlike. It's worth noting that the recommendations are, in fact, phrased as recommendations It's important to note that the "considerations" are not even phrased as "recommendations" let alone mandates, and that the phrase "if feasible" turns up a lot. The CDC is presenting things to consider, not rules that schools must follow. The whole re-opening America document is organized around the idea of three phases. One-- school is closed. Two-- Open with enhanced social distancing. Three-- Open with distancing measures.

This is going to be long, but I want to be thorough.


Establish and continue communication with local and state authorities.

So that the school is in tune with the surroundings. Do-able.

Protect staff and students who are higher risk by offering things like "telework" and "virtual learning." Ditto for those traveling to or from high transmission areas, like, I presume, a teacher who works in a low transmission area but lives in a hot spot.

So, everyone would have to run a cyber school on the side.

Make sure that outside groups that use the school also follow the guidelines.

Easy peasy. Just don't let any outside groups use the facility.


Promote washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes.

As with many school behaviors, the challenge here will be to deal with whatever the students learn at home.

Train and reinforce proper use of cloth face masks, which will be important when distancing is not possible. No cloth masks on kids younger that two or people who are having trouble breathing.

Good luck with masks on six year old. My three year olds last about fifteen seconds, and their masks look really cool. Masking is going to be a big issue, not just because it has become the hot new symbol for tyranny, but because it covers the face and makes it hard to read. How many times a day does a teacher read facial expressions to see how things are going, and how many times a day does a teacher use a smile or a frown to communicate quickly and silently with students.

Have adequate supplies to promote healthy hygiene behaviors.

That should be easy. I mean, what are the odds that the supply of hand sanitizer could completely disappear?

Post signs. And make announcements. Show videos.

Yes, student behavior is heavily influenced by signage. Not terribly effective, but it does give the school a kind of totalitarian decorating look. Remember, Big Brother wants you to wear your mask!

Clean the heck out of everything, often. But keep the cleaning stuff locked up so the kids don't get into it. And (just in case you need something else to worry about) check all your water fixtures that have been unused for six months so that you aren't spreading Legionairres' Disease.

This will be a challenge, and probably involve hiring extra staff with the money you won't have in the fall. Good luck on this.


Keep grouping static as possible: same kids together with same staff, all day for young students, and "as much as possible" for olders.

Well, "as much as possible" is "not at all." This involves small tweaks on elementary level, and is largely impossible for secondary.

Restrict mixing between groups.

See above.

Cancel all field trips, assemblies, extracurriculars.

Obvious. However, while I don't know how things are in your neck of the woods, around here as soon as you start canceling football games, it gets really real.

Limit gatherings and events that don't support social distancing. 

The guidelines keep falling over the same issue-- students are mostly very social beings, and anything that involves telling students some version of "I know your BFF is right over there, but you cannot go talk to them" is going to create endless stress and trouble.

Restrict non-essential visitors and volunteers.

So much for room mothers.

Space desks at least six feet apart, facing the same direction. 

The guidelines are everywhere stuffed with implications for class sizes. That class of thirty kids can't be social distanced unless you meet out on the football field. Most schools would have to radically reduce class size, which means more classes, which means more rooms and more teachers. My bet is that a whole bunch of administrators are right now pricing office cubicle dividers.

Also, I don't see anything about teachers in this scenario. Are you up in front of the room, declaiming at a distance, or are you allowed to circulate through the room. When Pat says, "I don't understand that third problem, can you help me," do you offer assistance at a distance, or are you allowed to get close enough to see what Pat is actually doing. Maybe you ask Pat to send you a pic of the work so far.

Physical barriers and guides could include sneeze guards, and tape directions on the floor.

See-- office cubicles would be great. Again, the "one way routes" is offered as an example, not the actual recommendation, which is good, since many schools have halls that would become inescapable dead ends. I will point out some math that I mentioned elsewhere-- a class of fifteen students lined up with six feet between them makes a line 84 feet long-- how exactly does an elementary teacher monitor that, and how many such lines can be out in the halls before nobody can observe the guidelines?

Close communal spaces like cafeteria and gym. Either stagger use and disinfect in between, or do things like serving lunch in classrooms. 

This is kind of a nightmare. I taught in a building that staggered lunch shifts of 300ish students, and what that meant was that the first lunch of the day was served at 10:30 AM. For my old building to stagger lunches so that they could involve proper social distancing-- that would take more time than is available in the school day. Lunch in classrooms means that lunch just became part of the teacher workday, which creates its own issues.

Create social distance "between children on school buses where possible."

The bit about one per seat and only every other seat is an example offered for trying to maintain distance on buses, not the official recommendation. Still, this is still a nightmare. Again, in my district some students ride the bus for 30-50 minutes, which means turning one route into two or three runs would either involve buying a whole second fleet of buses or staggered flights that would arrive at the school over the space of two hours. And getting more buses would probably not be as hard as getting more bus drivers.


Just adds "consider" to all of the above guidelines. Phase 3 suddenly seems far less exciting.


Keep each child's belongings separate from others'.

Again, one suspects that maybe nobody at the CDC has recently met a human child.

Ensure adequate supplies to minimize "sharing of high touch materials."

One also wonders if anybody at the CDC has met a school district business administrator. Also, "High Touch Materials" would be a good band name.

Avoid sharing food, utensils, electronic devices, toys, books, and other games or learning aids.

Seriously. And it's not just that human children want to share cool stuff with their friends. It's the questions of what levers classroom teachers are supposed to use to enforce this sort of thing. Do they give Pat a detention for passing a pencil to someone, or suspend them for a day because they shared earbuds with someone in order to play them a cool new song? It's not just that social distancing is antithetical to how young humans live their lives-- it's the strange contortions that schools will have to employ to enforce such measures.


Train staff in all of the above. Teach them also about how to screen students while also respecting all privacy regulations. 

Nobody has figured out this one yet. The working answer so far seems to be that in the face of pandemic, privacy must yield. Many citizens are pretty unhappy about that.

Stay home when you're sick.

Which totally makes sense, except if you're at home, what is happening with your class? Can your school find a substitute teacher who is able to manage all this-- and wants to? If they can't find a sub, then what. Can't just combine classes into one room, or have a parade of teachers pop in during their prep time, without violating the guidelines. And speaking of sick...


Have an isolation room for anyone who comes down with Covid-like symptoms. Be prepared to close off areas, wait twenty-four hours, then clean and disinfect, notify all the authorities, parents, students, etc.

I'm suddenly thinking of Code 2319 from Monsters, Inc. One kid with a dry cough could wreak such huge havoc on a school.

So can this be done?

You can see that the guidelines aren't quite as humanly impossible as they're made to seem in the blue meme-- just mostly impossible. It would certainly not be out of character for a school to say, "Well, this is the gold standard, and we view it as aspirational and will come close in several areas, kind of." This will depend a great deal on states, since the federal government is apparently happy to basically sit this whole thing out and didn't want to release these recommendations at all. The guidelines also make it quite clear that it will be up to local authorities to decide what is "feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs" of the community.

Much of what the CDC recommends will be impossible because of either A) human nature or B) expense. Many of these recommendations would be expensive, and schools are already expecting to be financially strapped in the fall. So critical questions will be what will the states actually require, and what will schools actually implement. The most important question will be what balance of practices will parents accept. Parents will want schools to feel safe-- but that also includes not feeling like a gulag. And, of course, some parents will not have much choice but to send their kids back, and they are rightfully going to have some feelings about that, too.

And of course we can talk about this all day, but September is still three months away, and three months is, right now, a long time. Remember three months ago? February? Boy, those were great times.


  1. Two things were noticeably absent in the CDC report. 1) bathrooms: do I take my 84 foot line of kinders down to the bathroom and send them in a few at a time, or do I send them down by themselves to climb Mt. Toilet Stall or get in wrestling matches with other random students? 2) spitting, biting, kissing and face licking: these are perennial chestnuts of the kindergarten classroom; should they be brushed off as developmentally appropriate behaviors, or the equivalent of bringing a loaded pistol to the classroom?

  2. Throw in the fact that, in fall, school districts are likely going to see massive reductions. Here in California there's a projected 20% cut to K-12. Mind blown.

    On the plus side, and completely unrelated, the California UC system has voted to drop the SAT. Huzzah!

  3. This is a great piece, but schools start in August now.

    1. Schools start anywhere from late July to early September in this country now. It's all over the place.

  4. I think the ONLY way to feasibly make any of this happen is to split all grades into morning/afternoon groups like classic Kindergartens. You'd increase the homework load (anything that can be sent home is sent home).

    Lunch is no longer served at schools (hot lunches distributed in 2 waves to students who need them), you'd decide who is in morning/afternoon by bus route to help with the bus issue. Teachers would also still get lunch breaks this way, and it could even be a little longer to accommodate teacher prep time, which might be trickier with the 10+% less money every school is going to be facing next year.

    That wouldn't solve a host of other problems, but it would help a lot of them.

    1. And who is thoroughly cleaning the school prior to the PM group. That would have to happen.

  5. I think alternate days could work for high schools. One group attends A day and works from home B day; the others run the opposite schedule. That would decrease his occupancy while not creating demand for more busses and drivers. It would turn a 30-person class into fifteen, which might fit in the allocated space.

    I have no idea what would work for 6-year-olds.

    1. Unless you are in CA where the class sizes are 35-40. Also, 15 kids are not going to fit in a classroom with 6 ft. distance. It is likely 10 (9 including the teacher) in most classrooms with larger ones able to handle about 12. Of course, I suppose you could also just decide to ignore that piece of safety advice from the CDC and cram them in.

  6. I agree with all of this, but I keep hearing that districts are cutting staff, not hiring more! To cut class size dramatically, we need more teachers, not less.

  7. School officials will also have the threat of litigation if they open, fail to follow the CDC regs, and infections occur. Superintendents and BOEs are between a boulder and a really hard place on this. Legislative protections seem unlikely so we shouldn't be surprised to see remote "learning" (where the chances of learning a re remote) play a bi role. Retired teachers everywhere look at at this landscape in with a real mix of emotions.

    1. Six of the Superintendent from the largest districts in CA sent a letter to the state with demands, one of those demands was to be released from liability before a physical return to school. You are right.