Back to School with the CDC

Center for Family Engagement Logo

Subscribe for Updates


Notes from the Backpack banner

Episode 45│Back to School with the CDC

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021

Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform:

Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Stitcher Spotify Tune In

Listen now:
Escucha en Español aqui!

Show Notes

Erin Sauber Schatz

As we enter our second Back-to-School season filled with COVID-19 safety precautions, it’s vital that you stay informed. We invited a special guest, Captain Erin Sauber-Schatz, community guidance subject matter expert for CDC's COVID-19 Response, to share the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


LaWanda Toney: Welcome to today's episode, I'm LaWanda Toney,

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland. We are your co-hosts and we have a very special episode for you today. It's hard to believe that a year and a half after initial school closures, we're still talking about COVID, but here we are. It's as important as ever to keep our kids safe, but sometimes it can feel difficult to know exactly how. I myself have been wondering and worrying about whether masking my three-year-old would make a difference in school, if other kids aren’t masking.

LaWanda Toney: Helen, I think so many parents have questions and worries. I know I do, which is why I'm glad we've been able to partner with the CDC. National PTA has been working with the CDC foundation to conduct listening sessions and a national survey with parents across the country to better understand what is on their minds and how they are feeling with the start of a new school year. Earlier this month, National PTA released the findings of this resource and hosted a back to class virtual town hall. You can find links to all of these resources in the show notes from today's episode.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right, LaWanda. We are so grateful to have the CDC as a partner and especially excited to have with us today, Captain Erin Sauber-Schatz, community guidance subject matter expert for CDCs COVID-19 response. Here today to answer our questions.

Captain Sauber-Schatz began working on CDC's COVID-19 response in March 2020. She led the community interventions and critical populations, task force, which writes guidance for where people live, work, learn, and play. She has co-authored various guidance documents, including on schools, camps, holidays, mass, and people at increased risk of severe illness. Her permanent position is in injury prevention. But she's been deployed for public health emergencies, including multiple crises from earthquakes to epidemics. So wow, Captain Sauber-Schatz, that's quite a resume, thank you so much for being with us today.

Erin Sauber-Schatz: Thank you so much for having me. It's really an honor and a wonderful opportunity to get to talk to fellow parents about COVID-19 and how to keep our students, staff and teachers safe in the classroom.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome, so we've got some questions for you, but before we dive in, we always like to get to know our guests a little bit more. Could you start by telling us a little bit more about yourself and what you actually do?

Erin Sauber-Schatz: Sure, I'm happy to. So, as was mentioned, my name is Captain Erin Sauber-Schatz and I began studying and working in public health almost 20 years ago. I have a master's in public health and epidemiology, a PhD in epidemiology and a certificate in public health preparedness and disaster response. I joined CDC in 2009 as an EIS Officer that stands for, epidemic intelligence service officer. EIS officers are often called the disease detectives at CDC. I'm also a captain in the US public health service, which is also called the Commission Corps.

We are professionals at the CDC and other health and human services agencies who work on the front lines of public health across the United States. When I'm not working on the response. I work in CDC’s injury center. As the transportation safety team lead, my team works to prevent motor vehicle crash injuries, which kill over 38,000 people in the United States each year. And injure 2.5 million more. In addition as was mentioned, I deployed for the 2009 dengue outbreak in key west, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to Africa in 2014 for Ebola, the opioid epidemic. And I've been working to fight and stop the COVID 19 pandemic since March, 2020.

In addition to my work, I'm a mom, I have a 12-year-old, seventh grader and I'm the wife of a husband, who's a really good cook, so he's kept me alive in the last year and a half. And he's also a handyman. I'm also a springboard diving coach, and like all of you, my family has been living in the pandemic and experiencing all the challenges of the COVID 19 pandemic. LaWanda Toney: Wow, that's quite impressive. Thank you for sharing with us.

Let's talk about the CDC guidance, Captain Sauber-Schatz what is CDCs guidance for schools and how it different from last school year’s guidance?

Erin Sauber-Schatz: Thanks, that's a good question. And I would actually like to focus on where we are now because where we are now in the fall of 2021 is different from where we were in fall 2020, and even spring 2021, as we continue to learn what works in the classroom and as data become available, but we also recognize that things have changed and they'll continue to change.

During most of the last school year, we didn't have a highly effective vaccine and we also didn't have the Delta variant. However, the last school year did give us even more evidence on what works to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading in schools. We know that layered prevention strategies work. This includes, vaccination, proper masking, physical distancing, ventilation, of course hand washing, routine cleaning and testing programs. Which testing programs can then be used to isolate people who test positive for COVID-19 and quarantine their close contacts what's really helps reduce spread in, in communities and classrooms.

So, it really is a combination of all of these prevention strategies that kept our schools safe last year and transmission low. I would also like to acknowledge that schools have faced tremendous challenges since the beginning of this pandemic. They've had to figure out the best options to offer families, such as virtual, hybrid or in-person learning. And, they've had to make continuous adjustments throughout the school year while keeping the best interest of students, teachers, staff, and the community at the forefront. However, I think that this year is harder and has even more challenges for a few reasons.

First, the amount of misinformation circulating. Second, the reality of what we're experienced with the Delta variant, and third, the low level of vaccination in certain states and communities. Throughout the pandemic, CDC has advised schools to expect and be prepared for COVID-19 cases in their schools and classrooms, layering prevention strategies, and quickly identifying cases through testing, and then isolating those who test positive at home and quarantining close contacts will prevent the spread of virus in the school. Prevention strategies can result in less disruption for a larger number of students, teachers, and families.

So I'd like to give you an example, that's based on what we've learned from classroom investigations. Imagine that a classroom has a student with COVID-19. This school wants to determine what other students are considered close contacts. A student is not a close contact, under CDCs current definition, if they are at least three feet away from the student with COVID-19. And if both students were correctly and consistently wearing a well-fitting mask during that time. So, what this means is that if a school is requiring mask use, which is CDC’s recommendation, and is distancing students at least three feet from each other, they're helping keep children safer and supporting in-person learning. Without masking the number of children who will have to quarantine when there is a case of COVID-19 in the school will be much higher and therefore disrupt more students, classrooms and families.

The 2021-2022 school year has recently begun, and there have already been many COVID-19 cases in the schools. As a result, many children have been quarantined for two weeks due to exposure to these cases, these exposures without masking and distancing, take children out of the classroom and put them in their families at risk for COVID-19. So universal and proper mask use will not only help prevent your child from getting COVID-19, but will also help keep your child in school, if or when there is a case of COVID-19 in your school or their classroom.

I also want to talk about vaccination and our guidance. Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports. Our limitation of vaccine is that as of the start of the 2021-2022 school year, only people age 12 and older are currently eligible to get vaccinated. Also, vaccination rates are low in some states and communities which increases the risk of COVID-19 spread, especially with the Delta variant, which we've learned is more transmissible. One of the benefits of being fully vaccinated, other than being significantly less likely to get seriously ill hospitalized or die from COVID-19 is that vaccination supports in-person learning.

Fully vaccinated students, teachers and staff members, can continue to participate in in-person learning and participate in extracurricular activities, if they're a close contact of someone with COVID-19. But we do recommend that they should be tested three to five days after they were exposed, and as we already recommend, correctly wear a mask in school. We know that about 169 million people have been vaccinated for COVID-19 in the United States, and COVID-19 vaccination is proven to reduce the risk of hospitalization, severe illness from COVID-19 and death.

Since many schools serve children under the age of 12, who are not eligible for vaccination at this time, CDC's guidance emphasizes implementing the layered prevention strategies that I mentioned earlier. I've already talked about masking and vaccination, but another strategy that is critical to helping reduce the spread of COVID-19 is ventilation.

Ventilation is important COVID-19 prevention strategy. I do like to always point out that by wearing a well-fitting multi-layered mask that helps prevent virus particles from entering the air in the first place or being breathed in by the person wearing the mask. But beyond masking, good ventilation can reduce the number of virus particles in the air and help reduce the likelihood of spreading disease. CDC has a webpage about ventilation in buildings, that has lots of information on how to improve ventilation. We also have a webpage about ventilation in schools and childcare programs, but some of the key points you'll find on the web pages are to bring in as much outdoor air as possible, and this can be also done in your house.

Ensure heating ventilation and air conditioning settings are maximized for ventilation, filter and clean the air in your school, use exhaust fans and restrooms and kitchens that will help pull out the pullout, the old air and pull new air in. Open windows and transportation vehicles such as buses and vans when it's safe to do so, and also if schools can support eating lunch outdoors, since that is the time when masks will be removed, we recommend eating lunch outdoors. There's natural ventilation outdoors that can help reduce transmission.

Even though much of the evidence we have on transmission in schools before the Delta variant, layered prevention strategies have been working even against Delta. CDC is looking at the data for the current school year. And as always, we will make changes to the guidance if the evidence suggests that changes are needed.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you so much. Captain Sauber-Schatz, that was incredibly comprehensive. I myself was on the CDC website, a couple of weeks ago, looking for some of these answers too. So, want to encourage our listeners to check that out for more.

You alluded to this, and many parents have been curious about the changing guidance. Could you share how and why the guidance changed and what's the best way for parents to stay up to date?

Erin Sauber-Schatz: Yeah, absolutely. And I'd like to start by acknowledging that our guidance has changed over time, and the reason is simple. The virus has changed, and we continue to learn more about COVID-19 and how variants are affecting the population. It's been just over a year and a half since we first learned about the virus that causes COVID-19. Everyday we're learning more with new studies, giving us more information, more insight, and in some instances, more questions to answer.

So yes, our guidance has changed, and it will continue to change as we learn more, and if or when the virus changes again. We have to adapt our guidance to ensure that we're in line with the current situation, with the current evidence and with what we have learned about what has worked or not worked. I want to point out that our recent guidance that we released in July, at that point in time, we only had 13% of counties in the United States that were at high levels of community transmission. I just checked today (August 27th) and we're at 92% of counties with high levels of transmission.

Helen: Wow.

So again, the situation with the pandemic continues to shift and so as we learn more, as we're monitoring the data, we will make changes when it's needed. And I also want to say that when I say we, I'm not talking about just the CDC, I'm talking about researchers, scientists, and healthcare professionals throughout the world. This is a pandemic, because it's affecting and infecting the entire world, not just the United States, of course. And we're all learning from each other with the same goal to end the COVID-19 pandemic. We need everyone to do their part, to make that a reality and we need to stop misinformation. Misinformation makes it so much harder to end the pandemic.

Misinformation about the safety of vaccines as an example, or the effectiveness of masks is slowing us down and is literally putting people's lives at risk. Again, we have science behind our recommendations. On CDC science brief page, you can read a summary of the literature and see the scientific evidence backing our recommendations. In the meantime, there will be more hospitalizations and there will be more deaths. And this is heartbreaking for all of us who are trying to save lives and who are working 24/7 to end this pandemic.

So, the best way to stay up to date is to read CDC's guidance and our science briefs. And when you hear that CDC has updated guidance, don't rely on headlines to tell you what our guidance is or isn't.

As an example of the K through 12 science brief, it’s a summary of over a hundred articles on transmission in schools and the vaccine science brief is a summary of 186 scientific articles. There's a full list of references included in each of the briefs, so that if you want to read more, you can. And also look at your state and local health department webpages. CDC works directly with state, tribal, local and territorial public health departments. They're one of our many critical partners in this fight. In addition to our websites, seek out webinars and podcasts like this one, and you can always do a search for CDC info and you'll find how to get in contact with CDC, so that we can answer your questions and believe me, that's been something that we've continued to do no matter how small or how big the question is, we have people ready and waiting for questions to come in, so that we can answer them.

LaWanda Toney: That's really great. So important to share those resources and have them available for families. How can families partner with schools to make the transition easier for students and teachers?

Erin Sauber-Schatz: Sure, I really do want to recognize that emotions are high in many places in the country, right now. We all agree that schools are an important part of the infrastructure of communities. So, CDC shares the goal of getting schools open as safely as possible, this Fall, and keeping them open. we've learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that reduced access to in-person learning is associated with poor learning outcomes and adverse mental health and behavioral effects in children. More students who attend school in person learn better and report fewer mental health issues.

Families can also partner with schools to make the transition easier for students and teachers, by supporting the public health recommendations that make schools safer for everyone and help keep children in in-person learning environments, as well as participating in extracurricular activities, including sports, band, theater, drama, choir, you name it. We want our kids' lives to get back to normal as soon as possible, and when you support your school's prevention strategies, you help keep schools and kids safer and help keep them in the classroom.

Those strategies include, indoor masking, physical distancing, screening, testing, ventilation, hand washing, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and routine cleaning and disinfection, when necessary.

Other things that families can do, they can promote prevention related behaviors through modeling and explaining how practices such as vaccination, hand-washing, distancing, masking, quarantine, all of them can help slow or prevent the spread of infectious diseases. As parents, we can also provide emotional support, which plays an important role in helping children and youth make sense of what they've heard about COVID-19. I know I've had to have some honest conversations with my son and really check in with him and see how he's been doing and coping, as well.

So, we should encourage our children to share their concerns with trusted adults. Also, linking students to necessary resources for mental health and wellbeing. It's going to be critical for students’ recovery from the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. Too many families have lost loved ones. So, we as parents can support a strong connection to school and family to buffer against negative experiences.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you. You mentioned a couple of these and I want to pick up on it, because there is a lot we as parents can do at home. What habits should parents be helping to instill in their kids for a healthy return?

Erin Sauber-Schatz: Sure, that's an important question. And I really think that helping our children first begins with us as parents. We have to model behaviors that show that we care about our own safety and health. For instance, getting vaccinated and properly wearing masks. Then we can help our children understand how their behaviors can influence the spread of infection to our families, friends, and communities. Beyond getting sick, our children's social, emotional and mental wellbeing has been directly impacted. Talk to your child, remind them of the steps that your family is taking to protect each other and be as safe as possible and let them know it's okay to feel upset or scared or unsure. We're all experiencing that in the pandemic and share with your child, how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn from you how to cope. And if you aren't coping well, seek help, free resources are available. Our CDC’s website has many resources such as the COVID-19 parental resources kit to help parents deal with COVID-19 calmly and confidently to provide the best support for their children.

Finally, I want to reiterate that although COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in school settings, when multiple prevention strategies are in place, numerous studies have shown that the transmission rates within the school setting are lower than, or similar to community transmission levels.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you so much. I feel much more informed which always helps, cause it is a very stressful time. Thank you for joining us.

Erin Sauber-Schatz: Thank you for having me. It was very nice to talk to you all today, please be safe.

Helen Westmoreland: So, this conversation got me thinking a little bit about how we talk to our kids about what's going on and this reopening discussion, what's that been like in your house, LaWanda?

LaWanda Toney: With Caleb, he's very excited about starting school, but I also have to level set, because I need him to stay flexible in case there is someone who has COVID and school may have to shut down, or he may have to quarantine for 14 days as the CDC guidelines suggest. So I want him to be excited about school, but I also want him to have some realistic expectations of what could happen. So, we've been having those types of conversations. What about you?

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, I mean, ours has been tough since Mary Eva's not in a K through 12 school, and is in a regular daycare. So, they're not requiring vaccinations for adults and they're not mandating masks for the little kids. So, it's been hard cause we're like, you know, three-year-olds are little germ buckets, we're currently not going to be sending her back to daycare starting next week, cause it's too much. It's too much.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. You have to make choices. I mean, I think everyone has to be flexible and decide what's best for you and make those decisions. So I totally understand it. I think with Caleb, I'm glad that he was able to go back to school last year, the latter part of the year, twice a week to prepare him, so that it's not so surprising that you have your mask on all day. Also with summer camp this year, he got acclimated to being in a mask all day. So I think they're fine. I think they will be fine.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah kids get used to things.

Helen Westmoreland: To our listeners, thank you for joining us as well. In addition to the work LaWanda mentioned at the top of the episode, the CDC is also supporting PTA and developing additional tools as part of our healthy minds initiative, aimed at supporting families and prioritizing a proactive and holistic approach to mental health.

You can visit to learn more. Thanks for listening and join us next time.

LaWanda Toney: This podcast was recorded by national PTA with support from the CDC Foundation through funding provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The opinions expressed in this podcast are the authors own and do not reflect the view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services or the United States Government.

This podcast was recorded by National PTA with support from the CDC Foundation through funding provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The opinions expressed in this podcast are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the United States government.