Blog

Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states.

Federal

CDC Shortens COVID-19 Quarantine Periods. Here’s What That Means for Schools

By Evie Blad — December 02, 2020 4 min read
030420 CDC Logo File

Shorter COVID-19 quarantine periods, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends, could ease some of the burdens that have made in-person learning difficult for schools, but challenges remain.

The new recommendations, announced Wednesday, would allow for close contacts of people diagnosed with the virus to resume normal activity after 10 days if they don’t show symptoms, or as little as seven days if they test negative.

The ideal quarantine period is still 14 days, but federal health officials hope that offering shorter options will encourage more people to cooperate by reducing the burden of being away from work and school for extended periods, they told reporters on a conference call.

But whether or not to adopt the new recommendations is still a decision for local health authorities, CDC officials said, and potentially exposed people should still continue to monitor themselves for symptoms for the full 14-day period, even after they return to daily activities.

The new recommendations come as case rates and hospitalizations reach new records around the country. Some schools have been forced to return to remote learning because they couldn’t locate enough substitutes to cover teacher quarantines.

“In a situation where cases are rising, that means that the number of contacts are rising, and the number of people who require quarantine is rising,” said Dr. John Brooks, the chief medical officer for the CDC’s coronvirus response. “That’s a lot of burden, not just on the people who have to quarantine, but also on public health. We believe that if we can reduce the burden a little bit, accepting that it comes at a small cost, we make greater compliance overall.”

Striking a Balance

The CDC urges quarantines for any close contact of a person with COVID-19. People frequently transmit the virus unknowingly before they have symptoms, and it may take some time for the level of virus in a body to reach the level that it is detectable on a test, epidemiologists say. Quarantines are meant to address this concern, reducing the likelihood of spread in a community.

But public health officials around the country have reported difficulty in contact tracing, at times because members of the public are uncooperative with investigators. CDC officials hope that people may be more willing to report contacts if they know they will face less time at home because of the potential exposure. The agency says the shorter quarantine windows come with a minor increase in risk— as little as a 1 to 5 percent increase in likelihood of transmission after leaving quarantine—but increased compliance may make the tradeoff worth it.

The CDC defines a close contact as anyone who was within six feet of someone infected for a total of 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours. It updated that rule—clarifying that it’s 15 cumulative minutes, rather than 15 consecutive minutes—in October after some schools required students to shuffle around every 10-14 minutes to avoided being counted.

That so-called “COVID shuffle” is just one sign of the burdens quarantines have placed on schools. In a November survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center, nearly three-quarters of responding school and district leaders reported that their need for substitute teachers has increased, as applications for the positions have gone down. That need is at least in part because of the need to quarantine teachers and staff.

And overall community compliance with quarantines matters for schools, too, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. That’s because a school’s ability to return to in-person learning and keep its doors open often depends on indicators like viral spread in a region.

“This seems like a policy premised on a balance of science and common sense to really try to be pragmatic of addressing the multiple realities,” Ellerson Ng said of the new CDC guidance.

Hurdles Remain

But some hurdles may remain in adopting the shorter schedule, particularly seven-day quarantines that rely on a negative test result.

For one thing, states have reported shortages of test kits and related supplies, like swabs. And, as virus rates and testing related to holiday travel increase, they may struggle to keep up with demand.

Health officials have also reported longer wait times for test results, which may make it less feasible to use a test to shorten a quarantine window. CDC officials said Wednesday that either a rapid test or a traditional lab test may be used to qualify for a seven-day quarantine. But the test must be conducted no more than 48 hours before the end of that seven-day window. And, in some areas, testing delays are much longer than two days.

Some districts have already stepped up testing in their schools. They have relied in part on a federal supply of 100 million rapid antigen tests, which provide results in less than 15 minutes without lab equipment. But those tests, shipped to governors to use at their discretion, are limited, and there may not be enough to meet the full demand, public health officials have said.

CDC officials acknowledged those challenges to reporters Wednesday. In cases where testing supplies are limited, local officials may opt for longer quarantine periods, said Henry Walke, the CDC incident manager for the coronavirus.

Separately Wednesday, CDC Director Robert Redfield said the agency would soon release additional guidance on mass surveillance testing, which could be used to monitor for potential spread in businesses and schools.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Federal Biden Picks San Diego Superintendent for Deputy Education Secretary
San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten was a classroom teacher for 17 years before she became a school and district administrator.
2 min read
Image of the White House seal
Bet Noire/Getty
Federal Biden Calls for $130 Billion in New K-12 Relief, Scaled Up Testing, Vaccination Efforts
President-elect Joe Biden proposed new aid for schools as part of a broader COVID-19 relief plan, which will require congressional approval.
5 min read
First-grade teacher Megan Garner-Jones, left, and Principal Cynthia Eisner silent clap for their students participating remotely and in-person at School 16, in Yonkers, N.Y., on Oct. 20, 2020.
First-grade teacher Megan Garner-Jones, left, and Principal Cynthia Eisner silent clap for their students participating remotely and in-person at School 16, in Yonkers, N.Y.
Mary Altaffer/AP
Federal Who Is Miguel Cardona? Education Secretary Pick Has Roots in Classroom, Principal's Office
Many who've worked with Joe Biden's pick for education secretary say he's ready for what would be a giant step up.
15 min read
Miguel Cardona, first-time teacher, in his fourth-grade classroom at Israel Putnam School in Meriden, Ct. in August of 1998.
Miguel Cardona, chosen to lead the U.S. Department of Education, photographed in his 4th-grade classroom at Israel Putnam School in Meriden, Conn., in 1998.
Courtesy of the Record-Journal
Federal Obama Education Staff Involved in Race to the Top, Civil Rights Join Biden's White House
Both Catherine Lhamon and Carmel Martin will serve on President-elect Joe Biden's Domestic Policy Council.
4 min read