States are shedding their COVID-19 testing requirements for unvaccinated school staff, as well as other mitigation strategies for schools, but some experts say it’s still important for schools to monitor their communities’ risk levels.
California and Illinois are the latest to lift their mandates. California State Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón announced this week that weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated people in schools will no longer be required starting Sept. 17, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ended his state’s requirement that unvaccinated school and day-care workers undergo routine testing, effective Sept. 16.
The changes come a month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 guidance for schools, which de-emphasized some common mitigation strategies, such as “test-to-stay” and quarantines.
The risk of severe illness from COVID in many individuals has been reduced, thanks to a combination of exposure, vaccinations, and boosters, but it’s not completely gone. Some epidemiologists have warned that super-contagious COVID-19 variants can still disrupt school staffing and operations, and vaccinated people are still at risk of repeated infections from the strains.
“It remains our continued goal to address the health risks of COVID-19, but current conditions of the pandemic are different from those of the last two years,” said Illinois Department of Public Health Director Sameer Vohra in a press release. “There are now many tools available for protecting our students, teachers, and the general public, including the latest updated bivalent vaccines and effective treatment options for children and adults.”
Soon after the CDC announced its relaxed guidance, some states that ordered teachers to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing started lifting their mandates to align with the federal guidance. For example:
- In New Mexico, social distancing, COVID testing for staff, “test-to-stay” programs, and quarantine requirements are no longer required by the state for schools (though local school districts could put in place their own protocols).
- Unvaccinated teachers and day-care workers in New Jersey no longer have to be regularly tested for COVID-19, after Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the mandate in August.
- In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Sept. 8 that the COVID-19 state of emergency will be lifted on Oct. 31, which means that vaccines for education workers will no longer be required.
Now the decisions about COVID safety protocols in these states are up to local school districts. Experts who spoke to Education Week emphasized the need for districts to make decisions based on the health and safety of their own school community.
“It’s important that school communities look to their local health departments to see what the guidance is, what the transmission rate is in their communities,” said Linda Mendonça, the president of the National Association of School Nurses. “And then make decisions based on what would be best for the health and safety of their school community.”
Megan Carmilani, the president and founder of the nonprofit Long Covid Families, said that having a multilayered approach is “in the best interest of keeping schools open.” That approach includes mask-wearing, testing, vaccinations, and even having better ventilation in schools, she said.
“The reason COVID safety measures are so important is because when you reduce spread, you reduce absenteeism and you maintain consistency in attendance. And that’s paramount for children’s education,” Carmilani said.
Some experts also said that perhaps even more important than vaccination is having better ventilation in schools.
“I’m a proponent of vaccination, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the current vaccines are not blocking transmission,” said Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at University of California, Irvine. “What I’d really like to see in school is clean air, through ventilation, and that will reduce transmission.”
Carmilani agreed, saying that ventilation is “the missing component” in COVID safety measures. “Our focus really should be on providing the best quality air for our children.”
It’s also important to think about COVID’s long-term impact, Carmilani said. Education Week has previously reported that thousands of students will face long COVID and that 1 in 5 teachers said they’ve experienced the emerging illness.
“We really need to start thinking about long-term effects and start minimizing the level of virus being circulated and that our kids are exposed to,” Carmilani said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2022 edition of Education Week as Goodbye to COVID Vaccine, Testing Mandates. What That Means for Schools