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Health & Science

CDC's New School Guidelines May Change Little, Superintendent Says

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released new guidelines to get students back to in-person learning. They strongly recommend students and teachers wear masks, wash their hands and stay distanced, more ventilation in classrooms and contact tracing. But the CDC says while the vaccination of teachers is desirable, it doesn't believe it's essential to begin to reopen classrooms.

For our series Learning Curve, we wanted to check in with an educator and get their reaction. Marian Kim-Phelps is superintendent of the Poway Unified School District in San Diego. Thanks very much for being with us.

MARIAN KIM-PHELPS: Nice to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Firstly, let me understand, do you have any in-person schooling going on?

KIM-PHELPS: We do. We're a unified district, so we have K-12. And we do currently have our elementary schools open. Students go to school on a AM/PM schedule, and then we do school cleaning in between the two sessions. And then we also have small groups of students coming into our middle schools and our high schools.

SIMON: What's your initial reaction to the CDC - the new CDC guidelines?

KIM-PHELPS: You mean our new palette of colors that we have? So...

SIMON: Yes, they have - we should explain. They've got several colors to, I guess, express various states of readiness and alert.

KIM-PHELPS: Well, here in California, we've already had our own color system, tier system. So the CDC's new color palette, quite honestly, it's caused some controversy.

SIMON: Well, explain that to us if you could, please.

KIM-PHELPS: Well, the color system in California that we have, as well as the CDC newly released color-coded system, is based on the number of case rates per a hundred thousand. So right now in California, San Diego County is in the purple tier, which does not technically allow us to reopen schools until we resume back into a red tier. But I don't think the colors exactly align. So whereas we may be in the purple tier here, that may result in being, like, in an orange tier based on the CDC new color-coded system. So it's a little confusing.

SIMON: I'm confused just listening to it.

KIM-PHELPS: Right.

SIMON: But the fact is, these are guidelines, right?

KIM-PHELPS: Correct.

SIMON: Well, what are the biggest problems you have in reopening - ventilation, distance, staffing?

KIM-PHELPS: We actually at Poway Unified have done a really great job. So we do have in place all of our PPEs. We've increased ventilation in our schools. We've provided air filters for each classroom. We've provided masks for everyone. We have hand sanitizer located in all of our schools. We have temperature checking stations. I mean, we have all of that in place. The biggest obstacle that we have currently is our staffing issue, the actual human resource portion of trying to find substitutes for teachers when they are out ill or out, finding supervision coverage for families and students who want to be on campus but teachers are out - so just finding the coverage for staff.

SIMON: Let me ask you, Dr. Kim-Phelps, about what I take to be the - and a lot of press coverage is centered on this - the central recommendation of the CDC that vaccinating teachers would be a great and fine thing to do, but it's not essential to safely reopening the schools as long as you observe these other guidelines like social distancing and handwashing.

KIM-PHELPS: Yes. And I think there's a lot of school districts that have proven that that is true. You know, we've been able to safely reopen and not have large outbreaks. However, kids are getting sick, and people are sick. And, you know, we also have teachers that go shopping or have family gatherings. And, you know, we don't want teachers also bringing it in and exposing it to children as well, too. So although vaccinations may not be mandatory or necessary, I think it certainly would help. These are educators who are in close contact with students. You know, although we can maintain six-foot distancing, it's also not always possible, especially with the younger kids and with our special needs kids. The vaccination may not be essential but are necessary and should be prioritized for educators.

SIMON: What do you worry about with students right now the most?

KIM-PHELPS: The most that I worry about right now for students is that our schools are safe learning environments, and my heart breaks when I hear stories like when we brought a child we found who couldn't get on technology, bringing them back to school and saying, oh, I'm glad I can come on to campus because they were being abused at home, and now they finally have a break from their abuser.

For many kids, schools are a safe place for them. It's where they get their meal, their - sometimes their only meal of the day. We don't know what every home looks like. And so, you know, they're not working from an equal playing field. And at least being at school and on campus, we can ensure that they're all on an equal playing field in a learning environment that's safe. They're able to focus. They're not having interference or glitches or not being cut out of learning. And they're getting, you know, their meals and some of their social and emotional needs met.

SIMON: Marian Kim-Phelps is superintendent of the Poway Unified School District in San Diego. Thanks so much for being with us.

KIM-PHELPS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITNEY'S "FTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.