The guidance acknowledges that many students have suffered from months of virtual learning.

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Emily Anthes and Sarah Mervosh

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance on Friday urging schools to fully reopen in the fall, even if they cannot take all of the steps the agency recommends to curb the spread of the coronavirus — a major turn in a public health crisis in which childhood education has emerged as a political flash point.

The agency also called on school districts to use local health data to guide decisions about when to tighten or relax prevention measures like mask wearing and physical distancing. Officials said they were confident this is the correct approach, even with the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, and the fact that children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.

The guidance is a sharp departure from the C.D.C.’s past recommendations for schools, bluntly acknowledging that many students have suffered during long months of virtual learning and that a uniform approach is not useful when virus caseloads and vaccination rates vary so greatly from city to city and state to state.

The issue of school closures has been an extremely contentious and divisive topic since the outset of the pandemic, and advising school districts has been a fraught exercise for the C.D.C. Virtual learning has been burdensome not only for students but also their parents, many of whom had to stay home to provide child care, and reopening schools is an important step on the economy’s path to recovery.

“This a big moment,” said Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the C.D.C. “It’s also a recognition that there are real costs to keeping children at home, to keeping them out of school, that school is so important in terms of children’s socialization and development and it provides other supports as well” — including to working parents.

The new guidance continues to recommend that students be spaced at least three feet apart, but with a new caveat: If maintaining such spacing would prevent schools from fully reopening, they could rely on a combination of other strategies like indoor masking, testing and enhanced ventilation. The guidance recommends masks for all unvaccinated students, teachers or staff members.

It also strongly urges schools to promote vaccination, which it called “one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations.” Studies suggest that vaccines remain effective against the Delta variant.

In previous recommendations, issued in March and reaffirmed in May, the agency said that all schools for students from kindergarten through 12th grade should continue to require masks through the end of the academic year. The agency also said that most students could be spaced three feet apart in classrooms — instead of six feet, which it had recommended earlier in the pandemic — as long as everyone was wearing a mask.

“We know that in-person learning is really important for school, for children, for their educational, social and emotional well-being, and so we really want to get kids back in the classroom,” Erin Sauber-Schatz, a captain in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps who helped lead the C.D.C. task force that wrote the guidance, said in an interview.

“Physical distancing is still a recommended strategy,” she added, but she emphasized that if schools do not have sufficient space to keep all students three feet apart, “that should not keep children out of the classroom in the fall.”

The guidance relies heavily on the concept of “layered” prevention, or using multiple strategies at once. In addition to masking and social distancing, those strategies may include regular screening testing, improving ventilation, promoting hand washing, and contact tracing combined with isolation or quarantine.

The recommendations call on local officials to closely monitor the pandemic in their areas, and suggest that if districts want to remove prevention strategies in schools based on local conditions, they should remove one at a time, monitoring for any increases in Covid-19.

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