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CDC Recommends Shorter COVID Isolation, Quarantine. What This Means for Schools

Schools are bracing for a hectic return from winter break. There’s intense pressure to continue in-person instruction, but the hyper-contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading swiftly.

In anticipation for increases in cases over winter break, some districts have already announced they will be delaying the return to in-person schooling or ramping up testing. In other places, school leaders are doing some delicate decisionmaking about how to proceed.

There are several factors that school leaders need to consider when weighing their ability to keep buildings open. Among them: community spread, vaccination rates among students and staff, state and local mask policies, remote- or hybrid-learning plans, and the impact of staffing shortages.

Two big factors that could affect a school’s ability to continue in-person learning: guidance and rules around isolation and quarantining. (Isolation policies impact those who have COVID-19. Quarantine policies are for individuals who have been exposed but not necessarily infected.)

On Dec. 27, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spurred by Omicron, shortened its recommendations for the length of isolation and quarantine periods. The new guidance (outlined below) is helpful for schools trying to maintain in-person learning while facing down an increase of cases.

But the new guidance takes some twists and turns that can be confusing. And following the recommendation is not without risk, according to the Associated Press.

The new CDC guidelines are good news, said Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. But shorter quarantine periods may not be enough to keep kids learning in-person with high rates of COVID-19 infection combined with other obstacles.

“The logistics of all of these things are difficult particularly when faced with staff shortages,” said Domenech. “From what I hear from all of our school system leaders, our superintendents, they want the kids in school, in person, and they will do everything possible to make sure that happens. But it’s going to be very dependent, again, on the metrics—the infection rates, the number of kids that have to be quarantined, the number of tests, if they are going to be doing testing in schools and who is going to be administering these tests and keep track of all of this?”

Need help navigating the next few weeks? Education Week has compiled some resources to help schools manage this COVID wave.

Here are the details of the guidance, courtesy of The Associated Press:

Isolation

The isolation rules are for people who are infected. They are the same for people who are unvaccinated, partly vaccinated, fully vaccinated or boosted.

They say:

  • The clock starts the day you test positive.
  • An infected person should go into isolation for five days, instead of the previously recommended 10.
  • At the end of five days, if you have no symptoms, you can return to normal activities but must wear a mask everywhere—even at home around others—for at least five more days.
  • If you still have symptoms after isolating for five days, stay home until you feel better and then start your five days of wearing a mask at all times.

Quarantine

The quarantine rules are for people who were in close contact with an infected person but not infected themselves.

For quarantine, the clock starts the day someone is alerted they may have been exposed to the virus.

Previously, the CDC said people who were not fully vaccinated and who came in close contact with an infected person should stay home for at least 10 days.

Now the agency is saying only people who got booster shots can skip quarantine if they wear masks in all settings for at least 10 days.

That’s a change. Previously, people who were fully vaccinated—which the CDC has defined as having two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine—could be exempt from quarantine.

Now, people who got their initial shots but not boosters are in the same situation as those who are partly vaccinated or are not vaccinated at all: They can stop quarantine after five days if they wear masks in all settings for five days afterward.

Acknowledging the Risk

Suspending both isolation and quarantine after five days is not without risk.

A lot of people get tested when they first feel symptoms, but many Americans get tested for others reasons, like to see if they can visit family or for work. That means a positive test result may not reveal exactly when a person was infected or give a clear picture of when they are most contagious, experts say.




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