Three toy blocks, one with a vaccine vial drawing on it, another with a COVID-19 microbe drawing on it, and a third with a duck drawing on it.
Illustration: PGN

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What you need to know

  • The CDC dropped its recommendations around routine testing, quarantine, and social distancing in schools.
  • The new guidance focuses on improving ventilation and implementing safety measures for high-risk situations.
  • The responsibility for risk reduction now lies primarily with students and their families.

The pandemic is by no means over, but we are past the days of school closures and online-only education. To adapt to the changing situation, the CDC updated its COVID-19 guidance for schools last week, relaxing measures around routine testing, quarantine, and social distancing. As kids head back into classrooms, parents may be wondering whether the new guidelines will be enough to keep students safe.

What changes did the CDC make to its COVID-19 guidance for schools?

The CDC no longer advises schools to conduct routine testing, including for unvaccinated students. However, if community transmission is high in the area, the agency recommends that schools consider implementing testing for high-risk activities, such as close-contact sports, and when students return from holidays.

The CDC also dropped its quarantine recommendation for individuals exposed to COVID-19. The new guidance advises exposed individuals to wear a mask for 10 days and get tested on day five following exposure. However, if a student is sick or experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, they should stay home.

The recommendation to cohort—divide students into smaller groups to reduce the risk of viral transmission—is also no longer part of CDC guidance. Instead of focusing on social distancing measures, the CDC is pushing schools to improve ventilation as a way to limit indoor transmission.

What guidance did the CDC double down on?

The new guidance emphasizes the need to improve ventilation and implement safety measures for high-risk situations. The CDC continues to recommend masks indoors in areas with high community transmission, which currently applies to 40 percent of U.S. counties. Although routine testing is no longer part of the guidance, the CDC still advises people to test when exposed, sick, or in high-risk situations. Staying up to date on vaccinations, staying home when sick, and hand washing all remain key aspects of CDC guidance.

Why did the CDC make these changes?

The CDC’s new guidance aims to minimize disruptions to kids’ education this school year. Instead of recommending school-wide protocols, the agency largely shifts the responsibility for risk reduction onto students and their families, leaving it up to individuals to make their own decisions to protect themselves.

At this point in the pandemic, the CDC’s goal is to reduce the risk of severe disease. Most Americans already have some sort of protection against COVID-19, either through prior infection or vaccination. We have tools like vaccines, boosters, and treatments to prevent hospitalization and death. Additionally, kids are at lower risk of experiencing severe symptoms from COVID-19 infection. All these factors contributed to the agency’s decision to move toward a more targeted, less disruptive approach.

Is my kid still protected from COVID-19 at school?

The CDC’s guidance does not necessarily make schools less safe, but it does shift the responsibility for risk reduction onto students and their families. Parents may need to take more initiative in determining when to ask their kids to adopt additional safety measures at school.

Getting kids vaccinated is the first step. Kids remain at very low risk of severe disease from COVID-19, but it’s still a possibility. Getting infected also comes with the chance of spreading the virus to more vulnerable family members and developing long COVID symptoms.

Parents can also help limit transmission by testing their kids if they show symptoms, if they have been exposed, or if they attended a high-risk event. The FDA recommends taking three at-home tests if exposed to increase the likelihood that the tests catch any positive cases. Finally, students can protect themselves and others by wearing high-quality, well-fitting masks in high-risk situations.