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CDC eases school guidance on quarantines, testing, screening

Students wait in a hallway to enter their classrooms on the first day back to school at Sunkist Elementary School in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended a more relaxed approach to pandemic safety practices in the nation’s schools, easing its guidance about student quarantines, testing and screening at a time when mask requirements have been widely abandoned.

The revisions — 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.

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. Last year, many schools quarantined thousands of students. Now quarantines are limited to prisons, nursing homes and other crowded settings. People who are sick or test positive should still isolate.

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The schools guidance also backs away from 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 come in response to an outbreak or be linked to high-risk activities — indoor sports, congested school events at times when the virus is surging.

Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, was sorry to see screening rolled back. “It is a useful tool for identifying outbreaks early and monitoring the burden of disease in a population,” she said in an email. “I understand that the expense can be a barrier, but absenteeism and losses in learning or productivity are also costly.”

The changes come as a third academic year opens amid the pandemic, with an extremely contagious variant, BA.5, circulating. But the 2022-23 school year is also the first to start with students of all ages eligible for vaccinations. Thirty percent of children ages 5 to 11 have received at least two shots, as have 60 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds, according to CDC data.

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 gone, it was no longer necessary, the guidance said. Gone, too, is any reference to student “cohorts” that limit how many people they encounter.

The guidelines do not change a major flash point: masking.

The CDC left in place its recommendation for universal masking indoors when covid levels are high — advice that has been widely ignored in large parts of the country. Schools are now overwhelmingly mask-optional: Of the top 500 school districts, just nine have mask mandates, according to Burbio, a data firm that tracks the issue.

Mask mandates return in some schools

“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 as some schools are already open and filled with students.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that educators welcome the new guidelines and believe that now, as there are multiple options for treatment and prevention, is not a time for new mandates at schools. “Instead, let’s ensure these tools are available and accessible: vaccines, testing and masks (and no stigma for those who mask),” she said, hoping for greater normalcy “so we can focus like a laser on what kids need.”

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.

“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.”

Ventilation is crucial, but until recently it took a backseat to other safety measures

In D.C. public schools, Becky Reina, a mother of two children who attended Cleveland Elementary School in the Shaw neighborhood, welcomed greater attention to air quality. She said HVAC problems were routine last school year. “Great if they’re emphasizing updated ventilation, because I agree that’s one of the key things to keeping covid under control,” Reina said.

Some cautioned that the looser guidelines do not mean covid-19 is gone. “It is important that all students, including students with disabilities that may put them at greater risk from COVID-19, are protected by mitigation measures that allow them to continue to fully attend school in-person, and that higher risk educators have the boosters and treatment they need to reduce the risk of severe illness,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

The most glaring issue for some experts is that many schools have simply stopped masking.

“At least we’re doing it after we have vaccinations for all school-age children,” said Jill Foster, a professor of pediatrics and division director of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Minnesota Medical School. Still, she said, the risk is clear. “It’s just going to become that we’ve got a lot of kids with covid in schools, and they’re going to pass it around.”

Lena H. Sun and Nicole Asbury contributed to this report.

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