The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated COVID-19 guidance for schools Thursday that puts more of a burden on high-risk individuals to protect themselves from the virus and de-emphasizes some common prevention strategies school districts have adopted throughout the pandemic.
The recommendations—which represent a shift in national public health strategy—come after many schools have started a new school year without precautions like mask requirements, even in “high community level” areas where the CDC recommends facial coverings.
Among the biggest changes: a shift in how the agency says schools should handle possible exposures to COVID-19. Rather than quarantining after an exposure, the recommendations say students and staff should remain in school, wear a “well-fitting mask,” and get tested. Also gone is guidance on “test-to-stay” strategies, under which schools allow students who’ve been exposed to the virus remain at school if they agree to take periodic tests.
“This latest guidance from the CDC should give our students, parents, and educators the confidence they need to head back to school this year with a sense of joy and optimism,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “While COVID continues to evolve, so has our understanding of the science and what it takes to return to school safely.”
The CDC no longer recommends “cohorting” students in classrooms to reduce the risk of transmission within school buildings. And the document also says strategies like regular testing of asymptomatic people for screening purposes—employed by large school systems like Los Angeles—should be reserved for higher-risk settings like congregate care facilities, rather than schools in low-risk areas.
“Schools and [early childhood education] programs can also consider recommending masking and/or testing for a classroom in which a student was recently exposed who is unable to consistently and correctly wear a mask,” the new guidance says.
A shifting strategy for public health—and for schools
Public health officials say a combination of exposure, vaccinations, and boosters may have helped reduce the risk for severe illness in many individuals.
“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” said Greta Massetti, a CDC official who wrote the new recommendations.
But some epidemiologists have warned Education Week that super-contagious COVID-19 variants like BA.2 still threaten to disrupt school staffing and operations as even vaccinated teachers, staff, and students run the risk of repeated infections from the strains. And some advocates for people with disabilities have said public health agencies have moved too fast in lifting precautions.
Some school administrators told Education Week in recent weeks they weren’t waiting on the agency to set protocols for the new school year, which has already started in many communities throughout the country.
Community considerations should drive strategies, CDC says
Administrators may need to customize their approaches by adding requirements like masking or testing in instances of high absenteeism or school outbreaks, the new guidance said.
The CDC continues to recommend masks in “high community level areas,” and it says high-risk individuals should consider masks in medium-risk areas. By Thursday, 41.7 percent of U.S. counties had high community levels, a metric that factors in hospital capacity and rates of severe illness.
The document stops short of directing schools to mandate universal masking. Federal officials have said high-risk students, including those with disabilities, may need classmates or those in close proximity to mask as an educational accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Schools with students at risk for getting very sick with COVID-19 must make reasonable modifications when necessary to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, are able to access in-person learning,” the guidance says. “Schools might need to require masking in settings such as classrooms or during activities to protect students with immunocompromising conditions or other conditions that increase their risk for getting very sick with COVID-19 in accordance with applicable federal, state, or local laws and policies.”
The new guidance also eliminates recommendations of 3 or 6 feet of social distancing in various settings, which many school officials have called impractical or impossible in their facilities. Instead, it says individuals at high risk for severe illness should avoid crowds.
Schools should continue to encourage COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, the CDC said, including through on-site clinics.
They should optimize ventilation, and direct students to stay home and test when they have symptoms of sickness, the CDC said. And they should promote testing by offering on-site tests and by referring students to community sites and at-home testing kits, the guidance said.