Clarification: This article was updated to clarify CDC recommendations for those exposed to the coronavirus and those who are infected.
Schools are bracing for a hectic return from winter break. There’s intense pressure to continue in-person instruction, but the hyper-contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading swiftly.
In anticipation for increases in cases over winter break, some districts have already announced they will be delaying the return to in-person schooling or ramping up testing. In other places, school leaders are doing some delicate decisionmaking about how to proceed.
There are several factors that school leaders need to consider when weighing their ability to keep buildings open. Among them: community spread, vaccination rates among students and staff, state and local mask policies, remote- or hybrid-learning plans, and the impact of staffing shortages.
Two big factors that could affect a school’s ability to continue in-person learning: guidance and rules around isolation and quarantining. (Isolation policies impact those who have COVID-19. Quarantine policies are for individuals who have been exposed but not necessarily infected.)
On Dec. 27, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spurred by Omicron, shortened its recommendations for the length of isolation and quarantine periods. The new guidance (outlined below) is helpful for schools trying to maintain in-person learning while facing down an increase of cases.
But the new guidance takes some twists and turns that can be confusing. And following the recommendation is not without risk.
“This is welcome news to principals, who are dealing with lengthy and disruptive quarantines,” said the National Association of Elementary School Principals in a statement. “Even as the pandemic continues to pose new challenges, we must remain laser-focused on ensuring students are attending in-person schooling when it is safe to do so.”
The new CDC guidelines are good news, said Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. But shorter quarantine periods may not be enough to keep kids learning in-person with high rates of COVID-19 infection combined with other obstacles.
“The logistics of all of these things are difficult particularly when faced with staff shortages,” said Domenech. “From what I hear from all of our school system leaders, our superintendents, they want the kids in school, in person, and they will do everything possible to make sure that happens. But it’s going to be very dependent, again, on the metrics—the infection rates, the number of kids that have to be quarantined, the number of tests, if they are going to be doing testing in schools and who is going to be administering these tests and keep track of all of this?”
Need help navigating the next few weeks? Education Week has compiled some resources to help schools manage this COVID wave.
Here are the details of the guidance, courtesy of The Associated Press:
The isolation rules are for people who are infected. They are the same for people who are unvaccinated, partly vaccinated, fully vaccinated or boosted.
- The clock starts the day you test positive.
- An infected person should go into isolation for five days, instead of the previously recommended 10.
- At the end of five days, if you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving, you can return to normal activities but must wear a mask everywhere—even at home around others—for at least five more days.
- If you still have a fever after isolating for five days, stay home until your fever resolves.
The quarantine rules are for people who were in close contact with an infected person but not infected themselves.
For quarantine, the clock starts the day someone is exposed to the virus or has come in close contact with someone known to have COVID-19.
Now the agency is saying people who are up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccines— those who have received a vaccine from Pfizer or Moderna within 6 months or from Johnson & Johnson within 2 months or those who have received a booster shot can skip quarantine if they wear masks in all settings for at least 10 days.
That’s a change. Previously, people who were fully vaccinated—which the CDC has defined as having two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine—could be exempt from quarantine.
Now, people who got their initial shots more than 2 or 6 months ago, depending upon whether they received a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer or Moderna, but not boosters are in the same situation as those who are partly vaccinated or are not vaccinated at all: They can stop quarantine after five days if they do not develop symptoms and wear masks in all settings for five days afterward.
Acknowledging the Risk
Suspending both isolation and quarantine after five days is not without risk.
A lot of people get tested when they first feel symptoms, but many Americans get tested for others reasons, like to see if they can visit family or for work. That means a positive test result may not reveal exactly when a person was infected or give a clear picture of when they are most contagious, experts say.
Arianna Prothero, Staff Writer contributed to this article.