The director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Rochelle Walensky was pressed again on the agency’s potential plans to update school distancing guidance during a Senate committee hearing on Thursday as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, cited increases in mental health emergencies among the nation’s youth. Walensky, whose agency currently recommends 6 feet of distancing to safely reopen, faced similar questioning in a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.
“A hospital administrator in Maine said that they’re having children dropped off at the emergency room with behavioral problems, and the grandparents or parent who drove them just drives away just leaving them there,” Collins said. “We have got to get the schools reopened and you’ve presented no timeline at all for doing that and the CDC recommendations particularly on physical distancing at least 6 feet are just not in sync with what most public health experts are recommending, so I’d like to know what you’re going to do and when to get our schools reopened.”
Walensky has faced increasing pressure over the issue of distancing guidance as politicians call for an update so more students can return to in-person learning.
Collins’ questioning followed Walensky’s testimony Wednesday that the agency was “actively” looking at emerging studies on rates of coronavirus transmission at 3 feet versus 6 feet. When pressed on when the public could see the agency issue a change to current guidance she had said the CDC is “looking to do it soon,” but stopped short of giving a specific timeline. Collins’ question received a similar answer, with Walensky emphasizing that the data is emerging and that studies are ongoing.
“I understand the mental health issues, the education challenge, this is urgent don’t get me wrong,” Walensky said, adding that when the initial 6 feet of distancing was recommended it was based on studies that were conducted during high rates of disease prevalence.
Walensky said the initial guidance was meant for schools to “lean in” and was intended for districts that had been shuttered. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who also testified during the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing entitled “Examining Our COVID-19 Response: An Update from Federal Officials,” later echoed that getting children back in schools remains at the forefront of the nation’s priorities.
Collins, who said there is enough data currently available to change the guidance, implored the agency “to do it now.”
The push to change the guidance stems from emerging data including a Massachusetts study involving a district with nearly 100% mask-wearing that found the rates of transmission among students and teachers at 3 feet compared to 6 feet remained the same. However, Walensky said that other studies involving districts with low percentages of mask-wearing showed flare-ups in cases and outbreaks, such as one involving Georgia elementary schools.
She said the agency plans to release additional studies on the subject “in the next several days.”