The two largest U.S. unions representing educators expressed approval on Friday of new federal guidelines calling for schools to fully reopen, while acknowledging that more challenges lay ahead.
The new recommendations, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, come after students, teachers and parents have endured a disruptive school year characterized by shifting guidance, school closures and hastily implemented remote learning plans to contain the coronavirus.
Education has been a flash point since the pandemic unfurled, when many educators and families were frightened of in-person schooling. But remote learning has proved an inadequate substitute for many parents and students, and virtually all major districts plan to reopen schools full time in the fall, though they still need to convince some hesitant parents to send their children back.
Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education, said in a statement on Friday that “our top priority is to ensure that our nation’s students can safely learn in-person in their schools and classrooms.”
Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Alliance, the largest teachers’ union in the country, called the guidance an “important road map for reducing the risk of Covid-19 in schools” in a statement.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers who has already called for schools to fully reopen this fall, said in her own statement that “the guidance confirms two truths: that students learn better in the classroom, and that vaccines remain our best bet to stop the spread of this virus.”
The new recommendations call for vaccinating as many people as possible, masks for unvaccinated people in schools, three feet of social distancing between students, and layering different preventive tactics.
“For educators across the country, this guidance sets a floor, not a ceiling; it builds on the evidence we have about Covid transmission and reminds us that we must remain committed to other mitigation strategies,” Ms. Weingarten said, adding that “we share the growing concern over the Delta variant, as well as the evolving science around Covid transmission in young people, all of which make it incumbent upon school districts to remain committed both to vaccinations, and to these safety protocols.”
Studies suggest that vaccines remain effective against the Delta variant.
The guidelines also suggest that the steps districts take to keep students safe should be based on local conditions rather than broad prescriptions, an approach that Ms. Pringle applauded.
“It is important that we pay attention to the unique needs of all our schools and the communities they serve,” Ms. Pringle said. “We have a responsibility as a country to address the disproportionate burden suffered throughout this pandemic by communities of color, which has contributed to families being unable or reticent to have their children return to in-person instruction.”
Schools largely proved far safer during the pandemic than many had feared, and in general, serious illnesses and death among children have been rare. Young children are also less likely to transmit the virus to others than are teens and adults.
But no vaccines have been federally authorized for children under 12, and children have made up a greater proportion of cases as the pandemic has gone on, even though there are far fewer cases overall than during the winter peak.
Scientists are concerned about an inflammatory syndrome that can emerge in children weeks after they contract the virus, even those who were asymptomatic when they were infected, and some children experience lingering symptoms often known as long Covid.
The highly transmissible Delta variant is spreading rapidly in areas with low rates of vaccination — the C.D.C. estimates it is now the dominant variant in the United States.
Expert opinion on the new guidance was mixed.
Dr. Benjamin Linas, an infectious disease specialist at Boston University, called the suggestions “science-based and right on the mark.”
“For the first time, I really think they hit it on the nose,” he said.
Emily Oster, the Brown University economist and author of parenting books who waded last year into the contentious debate over school reopenings, using data to argue that children should return to school in person, said that she was generally pleased with the agency’s framework, which she said gave districts a road map to reopen without being too prescriptive.
Though she had pushed for even more relaxed guidance — doing away with the three-foot rule altogether, for example — she said the new recommendations gave districts important flexibility.
“This is, in some ways, the most positive I’ve been about their advice,” Dr. Oster said.
But Jennifer B. Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, worried that debate between local officials about the best safety protocols could prove “paralyzing.”
At a news conference on Friday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that deciding which measures to implement had “always been the purview of local school districts.”
Reporting contributed by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Emily Anthes and Sarah Mervosh.