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Opinion The CDC’s updated covid school guidance is ushering in a new normal

A freshman at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, Calif., wears his mask as he works on a math worksheet on June 6. (Hector Amezcua/AP)

The newly released CDC guidance that eases covid-19 precautions in schools has it mostly right: At this point in the pandemic, the emphasis must shift from universal mandates to individual decisions to minimize the disruption of in-person learning.

Previous guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was appropriate for the last school year, but it is out of step with the situation today. It referenced social distancing and separating kids into cohorts, which posed practical difficulties for many schools. It urged masking at schools in communities with high levels of covid transmission, which is the case for more than 40 percent of the United States.

Masks and distancing are mitigation measures that were needed before vaccines became widely available for school-age children. That’s no longer the case. Everyone 6 months and older can be vaccinated, and those 5 years old and above can be boosted. Moreover, the vast majority of children have been exposed to covid. A CDC study found that as of February 3 out of 4 kids have had the coronavirus. That was before the BA.2 and BA.5 omicron subvariants became the dominant strains. By now, most children, and most of the general population, are well-protected from severe illness as a result of vaccination, prior infection or both.

In addition, the omicron subvariants cause less severe disease compared with previous variants. Multiple studies have found that they are also less likely to result in long covid, which vaccination further protects against. Today’s dominant variant, BA.5, is the most contagious strain yet, which means that it’s increasingly difficult to avoid infection, despite precautions.

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The CDC’s new guidance removes blanket distancing and cohorting requirements. Importantly, it also allows children exposed to covid to stay in class. This should prevent entire classrooms from being forced to stay home because one child tested positive and will come as a huge relief to parents who have seen how the unpredictability of covid restrictions negatively affects their work and their children’s education.

Masking in areas of high transmission remains part of the guidance, which schools will not follow anyway; a survey of 500 of the largest K-12 school districts found that 98 percent no longer plan to mandate masks.

I think it’s particularly telling that the revised recommendations no longer advocate regular testing, which diagnosed countless children with asymptomatic infections, forcing them to isolate and miss school. That the CDC is shifting away from asymptomatic screening suggests an overall change in its approach to covid. Instead of applying across-the-board mitigation measures for everyone in an effort to reduce infection, it is acknowledging the continued prevalence of the coronavirus and encouraging people to choose the precautions right for them.

Indeed, an underlying assumption in the new guidance is that individuals should act based on their own risk level. People who are immunocompromised or who live with people at higher risk for severe illness should take additional precautions. High-quality masks (N95 or an equivalent) continue to protect regardless of whether others are using them, and students and teachers should be encouraged to wear them if they wish to reduce their risk of infection. I’d add that parents can add measures based on changing circumstances, for example, by asking kids to mask for a week and then test right before visiting vulnerable family members.

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This kind of individual risk calculus is already the norm for the rest of society. Adults are already going about their pre-pandemic lives and do not have to distance, mask or quarantine for work, leisure or travel, so it doesn’t make sense for children to continue these rules. After all, the downside of mandatory precautions in kids is much higher than for adults. Requirements were justified when there were few protective tools available, but that’s not the case now. Moreover, the coronavirus will likely be around for our children’s entire lifetimes. Restrictions cannot last forever.

Those opposed to the CDC easing restrictions warn that the new policies will lead to super-spreader events at schools. They are right. Schools will have more outbreaks as layers of protection are removed. But daily outbreaks already occur at conferences, weddings, restaurants, gyms and workplaces. Most are probably not reported or even detected, as there is increased recognition that the United States cannot contain covid-19 through contact tracing.

Rather, everyone engaging in public life should be aware that those around them could be infected with the coronavirus. They should protect themselves with vaccines, know which treatments they are eligible for and take precautions such as masking according to their level of risk tolerance. Students, teachers and school staff are no different.

For the families who have been vigilant throughout much of the pandemic, doing away with restrictions will feel jarring. Some might wonder whether their previous caution was warranted. It was, just as the CDC’s previous school guidance was justified in earlier years. But policies must adjust with changing circumstances. I am very glad to see the CDC shifting its orientation away from blanket restrictions, especially for children.