CDC Eases School Guidance on
Quarantines, Testing, Screening

(The Washington Post) – Federal officials Thursday recommended a more relaxed approach to pandemic safety practices in the nation’s schools, easing guidance about student quarantines, testing and screening at a time when mask requirements have been widely abandoned.

The revised guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — part of a broader update that affects workplaces, day-care centers and other settings — adds momentum to a national move away from strict safety measures, even as COVID-19 “community levels” remain high in many regions of the country.

No longer does the CDC encourage regular screening tests in schools to detect asymptomatic infections and get a fuller picture of the virus’s spread. Instead, officials said, those spot checks should be linked to high-risk activities in schools when the virus is surging in a region or in response to an outbreak.
Quarantines are no longer recommended for people exposed to COVID in schools, who instead are encouraged to follow broader community guidance to wear a well-fitting mask and get tested. Quarantines are largely limited to prisons, homeless shelters, nursing homes and other high-congregate settings.

The changes come as a third academic year opens amid the pandemic, with an extremely contagious variant, BA. 5, circulating.

The new schools guidance eliminates a previous suggestion for test-to-stay programs, which allowed close contacts of an infected person to avoid quarantine if they had no symptoms and continued to test negative. With quarantines eliminated, it was no longer necessary, officials said.

The strategy, used by a number of schools, was criticized as expensive and operationally difficult.
The guidelines do not change a major flash point: masking.

The CDC left in place its recommendation for universal masking indoors when COVID community levels are high — advice that has been widely ignored in large parts of the country. Schools have overwhelmingly adopted mask-optional practices, even in areas of greater risk. Of the top 500 school districts, just nine have mask mandates, according to Burbio, a data firm that tracks the issue.
“It is a reflection of the moment that we’re in — year three of the pandemic, with probably the majority of people less willing to prioritize not getting COVID,” said Adam Hersh, a professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah.

Particularly in schools that previously required masks and safeguards, the changes and the contagiousness of BA. 5 could mean more illness, Hersh said. “There’s going to be more risk of COVID transmission in our schools than there has been to date,” he said.

The CDC’s revisions on Thursday arrive after many education leaders have already drawn up safety plans for their school systems — and as some schools are already open and filled with students.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said this week that this school year is not a time for additional mandates. Even though COVID-19 remains serious, she said that it’s less serious than before and the focus must be on the basics — reading, science, math, extracurricular activities — with masking, testing and vaccinations available.

The 2022-23 school year is the first to start with children of all ages eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. By last school year, vaccinations were widely available for young people: 30% of kids ages 5 to 11 have received at least two shots, as have 60% of 12-to-17-year-olds, according to CDC data.
The CDC guidance emphasized ventilation — which drew wide agreement from experts.

Don Milton, a University of Maryland environmental scientist who has advised the White House and others on airborne transmission, said it is easier to create safe environments than to place the burden on individuals to keep themselves and others safe. Increasing attention to ventilation filtration and air disinfection are key, he said. They help slow the spread of COVID and other respiratory infections.
“We know this stuff works, and we need to be upping our game,” Milton said. “If the CDC is emphasizing it more, that’s progress.”

In Washington, D.C., public schools, Becky Reina, a mother of two children who attended Cleveland Elementary School, said she would welcome more attention to how air is circulated in schools. She said HVAC problems were routine last school year, and that sometimes they would temporarily be resolved in one classroom, only to pop up in another. “Great if they’re emphasizing updated ventilation, because I agree that’s one of the key things to keeping COVID under control,” Reina, 41, said.

While schools may do less testing under the CDC guidelines, parents could decide to test more, said Maria Portela Martinez, chief of family medicine in the department of emergency medicine at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

“Some of the responsibility falls onto the family and the individuals if the testing is not being done at school,” she said. Still, she added, “it is not realistic to expect the schools to test indefinitely. It is a financial burden and it is logistically complicated.”

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