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Schools shouldn't shut everything down, but opt for short-term suspensions during pandemic, CDC says

(CNN) The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for schools Friday as children across the country return to the classroom.

The new guidelines address how schools can work with public health officials if an infected person has been on campus.

Rather than shut everything down immediately for a long period of time, the guidelines said one option is an initial short-term class suspension and cancellation of events and after-school activities.

That would give public health leaders the time they need to determine how widespread the infections are.

If schools are using a pod system, where they keep certain students together, administrators may only need to close certain parts of the building where an infected person had been. If local health officials recommend against closing the building, school leaders should thoroughly clean that area.

The guidelines also recommend schools offer counseling and ensure mental health services.

"We owe it to our nation's children to take personal responsibility to do everything we can to lower the level of Covid-19, so that we can all get back to school safely," CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said.

"Schools provide a safe environment for kids and grandkids to learn and grow academically, socially, emotionally, but schools are not islands in and of themselves. They are connected to the communities that surround them."

So far, more than 5.6 million Americans have been infected and at least 175,308 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The country's seven-day average for daily deaths has topped 1,000 for at least 24 days in a row.

The University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts the US death toll could reach 310,000 by December 1.

Despite the increase in positive cases and predictions, Redfield said Covid-19 deaths in the US should start dropping around parts of the country by next week.

Mitigation measures like controlling crowds and shutting down bars work, Redfield said Thursday, but it takes time until they're reflected in the numbers.

"It is important to understand these interventions are going to have a lag, that lag is going to be three to four weeks," Redfield said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Hopefully this week and next week you're going to start seeing the death rate really start to drop."

'Middle America right now is getting stuck'

The daily average of new cases in the US has been on the decline for weeks. Redfield's message comes as one Trump administration official said Covid-19 case trends are now "going in the right direction."

But Redfield warned that while officials have observed cases fall across red zones in the country, cases in yellow zones across the heart of the US aren't falling.

"Middle America right now is getting stuck," he said. "That is why it's so important for Middle America to recognize the mitigation that we talked about ... it's for Middle America too, the Nebraskas, the Oklahomas."

"We don't need to have a third wave in the heartland right now," he said. "We need to prevent that."

Vice President Mike Pence believes the US will have a coronavirus vaccine before the end of the year, he told CNN on Friday. Several companies are in Phase 3 of clinical trials, he said.

Pence also acknowledged the mounting national death toll, saying, "We mourn with those who mourn."

"Never been a day gone by we haven't thought about families who have lost loved ones in the midst of this pandemic," he said.

Super spreading events help drive pandemic

In rural areas, super spreading events have been especially important in helping drive the pandemic, researchers in Georgia said this week.

Superspreading events like parties, conferences and large gatherings have been cautioned against by leaders throughout the country.

Earlier this month, experts raised concern about a motorcycle rally in a small South Dakota town which was expected to bring tens of thousands of visitors. This week health officials said at least seven Covid-19 cases in Nebraska's Panhandle region have been tied to the rally.

Biostatistician Max Lau of Emory University and a team analyzed Georgia health department data in more than 9,500 Covid-19 cases in four metro Atlanta-area counties and Dougherty County in rural southwestern Georgia between March and May.

"Overall, about 2% of cases were directly responsible for 20% of all infections," they wrote in their report.

Younger people were more likely to spread the virus than people over 60, the Georgia study showed.

In Ohio, the governor said that while the state has seen a significant decrease in cases across urban areas, infections have increased in rural areas.

"Spread is primarily, we're seeing in social situations, family gatherings where people are unmasked, and in close contact and basically let their guard down," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday.

An ensemble forecast published Friday by the CDC projects nearly 195,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States by September 12.

The new projections forecast 194,778 deaths by that date, with a possible range of 187,373 to 204,684 deaths.

White House declares teachers essential workers

Meanwhile, amid a turbulent back-to-school season the White House made a new push for a return to education normalcy.

Teachers were declared essential workers in what is the administration's latest effort to pressure school districts to bring students back this fall.

Under Department of Homeland Security guidance issued this week, teachers are now considered "critical infrastructure workers," and are subject to the same kinds of advisories as other workers who have born that label -- such as doctors and law enforcement officers.

Guidance for essential workers state they can continue to work even after exposed to a confirmed case of the virus, as long as they remain asymptomatic.

Across the US, institutions have been torn between remote instruction or implementing dozens of new measures to prevent virus clusters around in-person learning. Many teachers have protested a return to in-person instruction, saying doing so could prove deadly. Some have opted to resign instead of going back to class amid the pandemic.

In Arizona, three teachers who shared a classroom teaching online during the pandemic all contracted the virus earlier this summer, despite following safety protocols. One of them died less than two weeks after being hospitalized.

As some schools reopened, more than 2,000 students, teachers and staff members across several states were asked to quarantine following more than 200 positive cases reported.

And as university campuses now welcome students into dorms, colleges across at least 15 states have reported Covid-19 cases, tracing back to athletics, Greek life or off-campus gatherings.

CNN's Ray Sanchez, Sarah Westwood and Shelby Lin Erdman contributed to this report.