Across the United States, children are preparing to go back to school, or are already in classrooms, and parents are preparing for another pandemic school year. Like me, many are trying to understand what precautions to take regarding COVID-19. updated guide published last week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly helped. It may have made dealing with going back to school more confusing, and could even lead to new flare-ups.
Last November, my fifth grade son had to quarantine at home for 10 days after a close contact tested positive. Now, the CDC has rejected the quarantine recommendation for people exposed to COVID-19. Today, our situation might look like this: my COVID-exposed daughter would wear a mask for 10 days, she would get tested on the fifth day, and she would stay in school the entire time; only the infected child would be isolated. That child would stay home for at least five days after a positive test. Then, if the child does not have a fever and symptoms are improving, according to the new guidance, he could put on a mask and return to class, without the need for tests.
That advice could mean more COVID-19 in classrooms. Scientists have shown that people can still be infectious after the fifth day. So without COVID-19 testing, students and teachers won’t know if they’re bringing the disease back to school.
The same day the CDC guidance came out, the US Food and Drug Administration added another update. If you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 but your home COVID-19 antigen test is negative, the FDA now recommends testing again and again. Repeating tests over time reduces the chances you will miss an infection and unknowingly spread the virusthe FDA advised on August 11.
It’s hard to say how that advice squares with the CDC’s new, more relaxed guidelines. Even the agency has said his public guide during the pandemic has been “confusing and overwhelming,” the New York Times reports. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is now planning a reorganization that could include restructuring the office of communications as well as relying more on preliminary studies rather than waiting for research to go through peer reviewaccording to NPR.
The CDC’s new guidance has provoked a variety of reactions, many negative, among scientists, doctors, parents and teachers. in an informal twitter poll of science news followersapproximately 80 percent of the 353 respondents reported that the new CDC guidance made them feel confused, worried, or angry and/or exasperated.
Now, it’s up to local school districts to decide what action to take against COVID-19. “Just because the orientation has changed doesn’t mean COVID is goneBecky Pringle, union president of the National Education Association, said in a statement. Not even remotely. The United States currently has an average of nearly 500 daily deaths from coronavirus and more than 100,000 new cases per dayan almost certain underestimate.
As my own children prepare for school, I wonder about The ever-changing landscape of COVID-19. Like other families with school-age children, we have moved from virtual school to in-person mask mandates and mask-optional recommendations. And we still don’t know our district’s plans for next year. School starts in about a week.
However, there are reasons for hope: we know what measures can slow spread of COVID-19 In schools. masking is great. A preliminary study published on August 9 linked lifting school mask mandates in Boston-area K-12 schools with increased cases among students and staff. At Boston University, mandatory masking plus a vaccination mandate seemed to keep the virus in check in classrooms, scientists reported August 5 in Open JAMA Network. Testing can also help. A computer analysis of England suggests that regular rapid testing of students can curb transmission in the classroomscientists report on August 10 in the Royal Open Science Society.
But knowing what works isn’t the same as employing evidence-based measures in the classroom, says Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College whose research focuses on COVID-19 and rural health equity. She has studied how pandemic policies have affected schools in northern New England. “I am concerned that we simply have not seen the political leadership to ensure that all children and educators can safely participate in school.”
I spoke with Sosin about the new CDC guidance and what kids and parents can expect heading into the new school year. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
serial number: What do you think of the updated guide?
Sosin: I was very disappointed that the CDC did not adopt a test-to-exit-isolation recommendation.
What we are going to see in schools are infected students and educators returning after five days with a positive result for COVID-19. Multiple studies have shown that most people are infectious beyond five days. Not only are they very likely to cause outbreaks. They will also endanger high-risk members of school communities.
serial number: What could the guidance mean for vulnerable children?
Sosin: I think vulnerable people are going to be in a very precarious situation. The guidance mentions the need to ensure the protection of immunocompromised people and other high-risk people, but there is an implementation problem. Will schools actually implement those protections?
serial number: Do scientists have a good handle on protections that can help?
Sosin: Definitely. We have really strong evidence showing that when mitigation strategies are implemented in layers, we can almost eliminate transmission in school settings. That means we should have improved ventilation, dining room strategies [like taking kids outside to eat] and testing. And I still think data-driven mask policies have a role to play. Not mask forever, but mask sometimes when we see an increase in transmission.
Serial number: How might the new guidance affect different communities in the United States?
Sosin: The different communities have not only been impacted in dramatically different waysbut they are also in unequal conditions at this stage of the pandemic.
[If we compare white communities with communities of color], we see disparities in vaccination coverage and loss of caregivers. Some communities have suffered enormous losses, while others have really been left untouched. Black children have lost caregivers at more than double the rate for white children. For indigenous children, the rate is 4.5 times higher. Those are sharp disparities.
Communities of color also have less access to testing, treatment and health care. I am concerned that if we do not have a renewed focus on equity, we will only see an exacerbation of the disparities that have existed during the pandemic.
serial number: What advice do you have for parents as they approach the new school year?
Sosin: We all want as normal a school year as possible. Masking must be one of the tools we are ready to employ to keep our children in the classroom. Additionally, we should advocate for our schools to invest in ventilation. Vaccination also represents a fundamental piece of the strategy.
We see such dismal vaccination coverage among children. Fewer than 1 in 3 children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated. I think a lot of parents don’t see it as important anymore — there’s been this narrative that the pandemic is over. We need a clear message that vaccination is still an important tool.
Now is a good time to plan back-to-school campaigns to vaccinate children and start preparing for the arrival of omicron-specific boosters in the fall.