Federal officials are laying out a roadmap for safely reopening schools to in-person learning complete with details on how to serve students with disabilities.

In a pair of documents issued late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education are emphasizing that evidence shows schools can safely operate during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic if they take precautions.

That means universal masking and social distancing in addition to other measures including hand-washing, cleaning facilities and contact tracing, according to the CDC’s newly released operational strategy for schools. Regular testing and prioritizing vaccinations for school staff also play a role, but neither are prerequisites for opening to in-person learning, the agency said.

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A separate handbook from the Education Department that serves as a supplement to the CDC document clarifies that students with disabilities shouldn’t be left behind as schools resume in-person learning. In fact, given that their needs are often difficult to meet in a virtual environment, it may be appropriate to prioritize this group, the document indicates.

“Educators and community members should collaborate to facilitate safe in-person learning for the greatest number of students with disabilities feasible,” reads the Education Department guide.

And, the agency said that an inability to wear a mask should not preclude children from being served in person.

“The narrow subset of students with disabilities who cannot wear a mask because of their disability, or cannot safely wear a mask, may still safely attend school if other mitigation strategies are able to be followed, including correct masking for others who work or learn with them,” the Education Department indicated.

Nonetheless, federal officials left the door open for certain cases where virtual education may be necessary.

“If a child with a disability cannot wear a mask, maintain physical distance or adhere to other public health requirements, the student is still entitled to an appropriate education, which in some circumstances may need to be provided virtually,” the CDC guide indicates.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was quick to point out that her agency is not requiring schools to reopen, but simply providing a path for educators to do so in a safe way.

Even if schools return to in-person learning, the CDC recommends that they maintain a virtual option for children who are at increased risk of severe illness or those who live with someone who is.

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