Unvaccinated students and school staff should receive diagnostic testing and quarantine for 14 days if they have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in updated guidance Thursday. Vaccinated students and staff do not need to quarantine but should wear a mask and get tested 3-5 days following a known exposure.
The White House, also on Thursday, announced new initiatives to encourage students ages 12 and older to get vaccinated and for the safe reopening of schools. Recommended practices include having community conversations about vaccinations at back-to-school nights and providing resources to teachers to talk about vaccinations with students and parents.
While the CDC and White House still maintain that full-time, in-person learning should be a priority for schools, states and localities are struggling to balance school COVID-19 safety protocols with trying to kickstart what was expected to be a more typical school year even as the public health crisis continues.
The updated CDC guidance builds on recommendations issued last week for universal masking for students older than 2 and staff, regardless of vaccination status. The highly contagious delta variant was the reason CDC cited for the universal mask recommendation and the continued push to increase the population of vaccinated people.
Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination. A COVID-19 Handbook developed by the U.S. Department of Education advises no disciplinary action be taken against students who do not bring a mask to school. Instead, schools should provide masks in those situations. The handbook also urges schools to take careful consideration of appropriate responses to students with disabilities who may have challenges wearing a mask.
The changing pandemic landscape and disputes about safety protocols are causing frustrations in school communities and contributing to disparate approaches across the country. For example, at least eight states have prohibited schools from requiring face masks. On the other hand, several states, such as California, Illinois, Louisiana and the District of Columbia, are requiring masks in schools, according to District Administration’s School Mask Tracker.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during a media briefing this week he is asking the state’s General Assembly to amend a law he signed several months ago banning mask mandates. He now wants to give localities flexibility to implement masking rules.
“We understand the value of in-classroom instruction and we want those children to be as safe as possible,” Hutchinson said, according to a recording of the briefing.
School systems are also weighing their options for requiring school staff to have COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as their outreach to parents about the importance of vaccinations. New York City Public Schools is requiring vaccines or routine weekly testing for all teachers and school staff. Tennessee’s Department of Health recently resumed vaccine outreach for students ages 12 and older after briefly pausing actions because of pressure from conservative lawmakers, according to reporting from the Tennessean.
About 90% of educators across the country are vaccinated, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said during a White House press briefing Thursday.
Other school safety protocols CDC is recommending include:
Three feet of social distancing.
Diagnostic testing, including for vaccinated people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Upgrades to ventilation systems.
Handwashing and respiratory etiquette.
Earlier this week, the Department of Education released a “Return to School Roadmap” with resources to support schools, students, parents and communities as the 2021-2022 school year begins.
Cardona and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky will travel to Boston today for a town hall about school safety. The event, which will be held 1 to 2 p.m. EDT will be live streamed on the Department of Education’s Facebook page.