Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Health Committee, questioned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky at a hearing with public health officials on the COVID-19 response.
Senator Collins discussed the significant harm school closures are having on students and criticized the CDC’s glacial pace to align its guidance with the latest science that could help reopen schools more quickly.
“Dr. Walensky, the CDC school reopening guidance has been at odds with what many public health experts are recommending,” said Senator Collins. “When we discussed this issue recently, I really detected a lack of a sense of urgency on your part to reopen schools.”
Senator Collins cited multiple public health experts who have disputed the CDC’s current guidance calling for six feet of spacing between students. A growing body of research shows that it is safe for students to be kept three feet apart if they have masks and other precautions. Senator Collins explained that prolonged school closures are negatively affecting children’s academic and social growth and causing stress for parents.
“We have got to get the schools reopened,” Senator Collins said. “And you've presented no timeline at all for doing that. And the CDC recommendations, particularly on physical distancing of at least six 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.”
Dr. Walensky insisted that she believes that reopening schools is “an urgent issue.” She explained that the guidance CDC released several weeks ago was intended to encourage schools that have been closed to implement mitigation measures to safely reopen. Dr. Walensky also noted that the CDC’s guidance sought to encourage higher levels of mask usage in schools, which has been shown to prevent outbreaks.
Dr. Walensky also addressed the issue Senator Collins raised on adjusting the guidance on distancing in classrooms from six feet to three feet.
“[T]here was a study out of CID from Massachusetts in a place where there was about 100 percent mask wearing that three feet and six feet yielded the same amount of infections. And so that was the first study we had seen that looked at three feet versus six feet,” said Dr. Walensky. “Indeed, because six feet has been such a challenge, science has leaned in and there are now emerging studies on the question between three feet and six feet. I'm aware of several that will be released in the next several days and we are actively looking at our guidance to update it to address that science.”
“You need to do it now,” Senator Collins urged Dr. Walensky. “And I agree with you on mask wearing, but I really wish that you would look at this testimony and what these public health experts are saying.”
Senator Collins has repeatedly underscored the need to reopen schools, including in previous hearings with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Assistant Secretary of HHS, and public health experts.
The Committee’s hearing today was the first in the new Congress with Administration officials from the CDC, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and HHS.