CDC facilitates school counseling on quarantines, testing and screening

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Federal officials on Thursday recommended a more relaxed approach to pandemic safety practices in schools across the country, easing guidelines on quarantines, testing and screening of students at a time when mask requirements have been tightened. largely abandoned.

The revised guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — as part of a broader update that affects workplaces, daycares and other settings — adds momentum to a nationwide move away from strict safety measures, even if “community levels” of covid-19 remain high in several parts of the country.

The CDC no longer encourages regular testing in schools to detect asymptomatic infections and get a more complete picture of the spread of the virus. Instead, officials said, these spot checks should be tied to high-risk activities in schools when the virus increases in an area or in response to an outbreak.

Quarantines are no longer recommended for people exposed to covid in schools, who are instead encouraged to follow broader community guidelines to wear a properly fitted mask and get tested. Quarantines are largely limited to prisons, homeless shelters, nursing homes and other crowded environments.

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The changes come as a third academic year opens amid the pandemic, with a highly contagious environment variant, BA.5, outstanding.

Caitlin Rivers, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, was sorry to see the screening cancelled. “It’s a useful tool for identifying outbreaks early and monitoring disease burden in a population,” she said in an email. “I understand that expense can be a barrier, but absenteeism and lost learning or productivity are also costly.”

The schools’ new guidelines eliminate a previous suggestion of test-to-stay programs, which allowed close contacts of an infected person to avoid quarantine if they had no symptoms and continued to test negative. With quarantines eliminated, that was no longer necessary, officials said.

The strategy, used by a number of schools, has been criticized as costly and operationally difficult.

The guidelines don’t change a major flashpoint: masking.

The CDC left in place its recommendation for universal indoor masking when community levels of covid are high – advice that has been largely ignored in large parts of the country. Schools have massively adopted mask-optional practices, even in higher-risk areas. Of the top 500 school districts, only nine have mask mandates, according to Burbio, a data company that tracks the issue.

Mask mandates return to some schools

“It’s a reflection of where we are – year three of the pandemic, with probably the majority of people less willing to prioritize not getting covid,” said Adam Hersh, professor of pediatrics at the division of pediatric infectious diseases. at the University of Utah.

Particularly in schools that previously required masks and protections, BA changes and is contagious. 5 could mean more disease, Hersh said. “There will be more risk of covid transmission in our schools than there has been so far,” he said.

Thursday’s CDC revisions come after many education officials have already developed safety plans for their school systems — and some schools are already open and full of students.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said this week that this school year is not the time for extra terms. Although covid-19 remains severe, she said it was less severe than before and the focus should be on the basics – reading, science, math, extracurricular activities – with masking, testing and vaccinations available.

The 2022-23 school year is the first to begin with children of all ages eligible to be vaccinated against covid-19. In the past school year, vaccines were widely available to young people: 30% of children ages 5 to 11 received at least two shots, as did 60% of those ages 12 to 17, according to CDC data. .

The CDC’s guidelines emphasized ventilation — which garnered broad agreement from experts.

Don Milton, a University of Maryland environmental scientist who has advised the White House and others on airborne transmission, said it is easier to create safe environments than to place the burden on individuals to protect themselves and others. Increased attention to ventilation filtration and air disinfection is essential, he said. They help slow the spread of covid and other respiratory infections.

“We know this stuff works and we need to up our game,” Milton said. “If the CDC puts more emphasis on that, that’s progress.”

Ventilation is crucial, but until recently it took precedence over other safety measures

In DC Public Schools, Becky Reina, a mother of two who attended Cleveland Elementary School in the Shaw neighborhood, wishes more attention was paid to air circulation in schools. She said HVAC issues were common in the past year and sometimes they were temporarily resolved in one classroom, only to appear in another. “Great if they emphasize updated ventilation as I agree that’s one of the key things to keep covid under control,” said Reina, 41.

While schools may do fewer tests under CDC guidelines, parents could decide to test more, said Maria Portela Martinez, chief family medicine in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“Part of the responsibility lies with the family and individuals if the test is not done at school,” she said. Still, she added, “it is unrealistic to expect schools to test indefinitely. It’s a financial burden and it’s logistically complicated.

For some experts, the most glaring problem is that schools have simply stopped masking themselves.

“At least we’re doing it after vaccinating all school-aged children,” said Jill Foster, professor of pediatrics and division director of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Still, she says, the risk is clear. “It’s just going to become that we have a lot of kids with covid in schools, and they’re going to push it through.”

Lena H. Sun and Nicole Asbury contributed to this report.

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