Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) released new operational guidance for schools, which intends to help schools remain open for in-person learning while reducing the spread of COVID-19. It also encourages schools to work with local health officials to implement a core set of infectious disease prevention strategies and monitor community COVID-19 levels to determine when the layering of additional COVID-19-specific prevention strategies should be used. Among other things, the CDC:
- Recommends that students or staff who come to school with COVID-19 symptoms or develop symptoms while at school be asked to wear a well-fitting mask or respirator while in the building and be sent home and encouraged to get tested if testing is unavailable at school.
- Recommends that people with COVID-19 stay away from others and not attend school until they have completed isolation, in accordance with the CDC’s isolation guidance.
- Recommends universal indoor masking in schools when COVID-19 Community Levels are High, as outlined in the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels database; at all times in school nurses’ offices; and for people with a known or suspected exposure to COVID-19 for 10 days from their last exposure, regardless of vaccination status or history of prior infection.
- No longer recommends routine screening testing in K-12 schools. However, when COVID-19 Community Levels are High, schools may consider implementing screening testing for students and staff for high-risk activities (e.g. close contact sports, band, choir, or theater); at key times in the year; and/or when returning from school breaks.
- No longer recommends quarantine for individuals exposed to COVID-19 (except in certain high-risk settings) and instead recommends that individuals who are exposed wear a well-fitting mask for ten full days after their last exposure and get tested at least five full days after their last exposure.
In addition, earlier this month, the Connecticut Department of Public Health (“DPH”) announced a new initiative entitled “Launching Into Healthy Learning,” designed to help kids attend school in person as much as possible and keep them healthy and learning throughout the year. DPH, the State Department of Education (“SDE”) and the Office of Early Childhood (“OEC”) also issued a joint initiative entitled “Launching into Healthy Learning—Operational Strategies, Fall 2022,” reflecting a similar sentiment. Like the new CDC guidance, DPH’s new guidance encourages local decision-makers to work with their local health departments and communities and balance implementing respiratory disease prevention measures with maximizing in-person participation opportunities for children. Because remote learning for COVID-19-related reasons is no longer authorized, these strategies are designed to help individual students avoid missing school.
DPH’s new guidance focuses on three components: (1) vaccinations, (2) maximizing in-person learning with symptom awareness and at-home testing, and (3) the use of prevention tools based on local conditions. The guidance describes each component as follows:
- Vaccinations: DPH emphasizes that vaccination is the first and most important tool in preventing the spread of respiratory diseases, like COVID-19 and influenza. Currently, individuals six months of age or older are eligible to receive both the COVID-19 vaccine and a seasonal flu vaccine. For schools, encouraging children and staff to stay up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccinations prior to the start of the school year may help mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Maximizing In-Person Learning: Although the CDC continues to advise that children and staff experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should stay home and test, DPH emphasizes that in-person learning is critical for students’ social, emotional and physical well-being and academic development. In light of these considerations, DPH’s new guidance puts forth an alternative approach, Test-Mask-Go. Through this optional approach, DPH advises that children and staff experiencing mild respiratory disease symptoms (infrequent cough, congestion, runny nose, sore throat, etc.), with no fever and no known COVID-19 cases in their household during the prior two weeks self-test at home for COVID-19 each day they have symptoms, and on the morning their symptoms have completely resolved. Children and staff who meet this new standard and test negative may attend school in-person and are strongly encouraged to wear a well-fitting mask when indoors until they are symptom-free. DPH encourages individuals who do not meet the Test-Mask-Go standard to remain at home until they are symptom-free, while also continuing to test for COVID-19.
- Prevention Tools Based on Local Conditions: DPH reminds schools that they are still required to report COVID-19 cases through state channels. Similar to the CDC’s guidance, DPH further recommends that schools rely on the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels database to determine whether their particular community’s COVID-19 levels fall within the Low, Medium, or High range, and implement prevention measures accordingly. DPH encourages schools in Low-level communities to maximize in-person learning days and rely on routine strategies like maintaining cleaning and disinfection protocols for all classrooms. Schools in Medium-level communities are encouraged to implement additional prevention strategies like increased spacing, use of outdoor spaces, and/or reinforcing frequent hand cleaning and proper respiratory etiquette. Finally, schools in High-level communities are encouraged to take further prevention strategies, such as implementing a universal mask policy indoors, cohorting, contact tracing, and/or limiting outside visitors to those necessary for student instruction or support. School districts can track COVID-19 community levels here to help inform the operational strategies that may be most appropriate for their communities.
Districts are advised to review and consider the new CDC and DPH guidance as they prepare for the upcoming school year. In addition, districts that have received a direct allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds must update their Safe Return to School Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan and continue to do so every six months, as described in this reminder provided by the SDE.
For additional information regarding the CDC and DPH’s new guidance, please contact Dori Pagé Antonetti at firstname.lastname@example.org, Kelsey N. Scarlett at email@example.com, or any other member of Shipman’s School Law practice group.