What the Latest COVID Guidance Means for Back to School

August 12, 2022 by Dan McCue
What the Latest COVID Guidance Means for Back to School
(Photo by Daiga Ellaby via UnSplash)

WASHINGTON — A hit in the early 1970s featured children in its final refrain singing, “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.”

If the song were updated this year, Alice Cooper might be tempted to have them throw in “no more remote learning” to boot.

That’s because, as of this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising that students can stay in their classrooms this fall even if they are known to have been exposed to COVID-19.

While the nation’s largest health agency continues to recommend that people quarantine after they have a COVID-19 exposure in high-risk congregate settings, like nursing homes and jails, schools don’t fit that high-risk category, CDC officials said during a recent conference call with reporters.

Now, the CDC is recommending that students, teachers and school staff who remain asymptomatic wear a “high-quality” mask for 10 days and get tested on day five.

As a result of the new guidelines, the agency is dropping its previous recommendation that said students exposed to COVID-19 should be tested regularly to keep attending school.

The move away from strict quarantines is a sign the agency now sees COVID-19 as something that’s here to stay and that minimizing the disruptions it has caused in the past is preferable to learning and mental health issues that were a byproduct of remote schooling and student isolation.

It’s also an acknowledgement that many school districts across the country have already scaled back their COVID-related precautions.

“This latest guidance from the CDC should give our students, parents, and educators the confidence they need to head back to school this year with a sense of joy and optimism,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a written statement after the new guidelines were announced.

“While COVID continues to evolve, so has our understanding of the science and what it takes to return to school safely,” he said. “Thanks to vaccines, boosters, new treatments, and commonsense safety precautions — as well as funding from the American Rescue Plan — our schools have more resources than ever before to provide the healthy learning environments our students need to grow and thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.”

Another important education-related change is the end of the recommendation that schools do routine daily testing, although that practice can be reinstated in certain situations during a surge in infections, officials said.

Masks continue to be recommended only in areas where community transmission is deemed high, or if a person is considered at high risk of severe illness.

As much as some things might change, others remain the same. As in life, so it goes for the CDC guidance for people who do test positive for COVID-19.

The health agency continues to recommend they isolate for at least five days, as people are most contagious during those first five days.

If their symptoms are improving or if they are entirely asymptomatic after five days, they can come out of isolation, though masking remains recommended through day 10.

People who have more severe COVID-19 symptoms, such as trouble breathing and a high fever, should consult a doctor and isolate through day 10, the recommendations say.

“The current conditions of this pandemic are very different from those of the last two years,” said Dr. Greta Massetti, the author of the new guidelines, during the call with reporters on Thursday.

“High levels of population immunity due to vaccination and previous infection and the many available tools to protect the general population and protect people at higher risk allow us to focus on protecting people from serious illness from COVID,” she said.

According to the CDC, about 95% of the U.S. population has some level of immunity against COVID-19 either because they’ve been vaccinated or they already had the virus.

The average numbers of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths have been relatively flat this summer, at around 100,000 cases a day and 300-400 deaths, the agency said.

The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers unions, said it welcomes the guidance.

“Every educator and every parent starts every school year with great hope, and this year even more so,” President Randi Weingarten said. “After two years of uncertainty and disruption, we need as normal a year as possible so we can focus like a laser on what kids need.

“COVID-19 and other viruses are still with us, but with multiple prevention and treatment options available, now is not the time for new mandates. Instead, let’s ensure these tools are available and accessible: vaccines, testing and masks (and no stigma for those who mask),” Weingarten continued.

“We will continue to press for what children and educators need to recover and thrive, including enhanced ventilation; lower class size; emotional and social supports such as guidance counselors, paraprofessionals and nurses; and, of course, recruiting and retaining great teachers,” she said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue

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