7 things to know about new COVID-19 school guidance from CDC, Illinois
New federal and state health guidance adjusts policies on masks, distancing and quarantines in Illinois’ K-12 schools. Many students will again be masked in the coming year.
With about a month until Illinois students start returning to classrooms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released its updated COVID-19 guidelines for schools, which were adopted July 9 by the Illinois Department of Public Health for K-12 schools.
The federal guidelines stress the importance of students returning to classrooms, and the Illinois state superintendent has declared mandatory, fully in-person learning for all students. The new recommendations slightly loosen some requirements – such as students wearing masks outdoors – for everyone and allow freedom from many COVID-19 restrictions for fully vaccinated students and staff. However, many restrictions still apply to unvaccinated members of school communities and will disappoint those who had urged relaxed rules for everyone.
1. Vaccination encouraged, not required
The CDC strongly encourages vaccination as the best way to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Current regulations allow vaccination for persons 12 and older, but there are no requirements from federal or Illinois state authorities that eligible students or school personnel be vaccinated.
2. Masks not required for vaccinated persons, but still recommended indoors for unvaccinated ones
The CDC states masks need not be worn indoors by vaccinated students, teachers or staff, but should be worn indoors by unvaccinated persons in schools.
Masks are not required for recess, as they generally need not be worn outdoors, regardless of whether a person is vaccinated. However, the CDC says in crowded places or in situations involving sustained close personal contact – particularly in areas with substantial transmission – unvaccinated people should wear masks outdoors as well.
Unvaccinated students playing sports indoors or close-contact sports outdoors should wear masks, although fully vaccinated students need not wear masks in these circumstances, according to the CDC.
Masks are still required for all people on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.
3. Physical distancing
Schools are encouraged to keep students in classrooms at least 3 feet apart; however, the CDC said this is not required if it would prevent schools from offering full-time, in-person learning to all students. Six feet of distance between unvaccinated adults and between adults and students is recommended.
Students and staff who are fully vaccinated are not required to quarantine after close contact with someone with COVID-19 in the absence of symptoms, nor are they required to undergo testing in such instances. Persons who are not fully vaccinated are still subject to quarantine requirements in cases of exposure. However, students who were exposed in a classroom setting are not subject to quarantine if: (1) they and the person with COVID-19 were all wearing masks and (2) there were other mitigation strategies in place, such as ventilation, physical distancing, etc.
5. Screening testing
The CDC also discusses regular screening testing of unvaccinated students as a possible strategy to reduce transmission in areas with moderate to high transmission. Vaccinated persons should not be subject to screening testing.
6. Cleaning and disinfecting
The recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting note ordinary daily cleaning of school facilities is sufficient, while disinfecting procedures should be used when a diagnosed case of COVID-19 occurs.
7. Other guidelines
The CDC recommendations also cover issues such as handwashing, ventilation and contact tracing.
Illinois State Board of Education responds
Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said all Illinois schools must resume fully in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year. “Remote instruction will be made available for students who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine or who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, only while they are under quarantine consistent with guidance or requirements from a local public health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health,” Ayala said.
This statement marks a change from an earlier resolution from ISBE that contemplated remote instruction only for students under quarantine orders who were ineligible for the vaccine. The July 9 statement indicates unvaccinated students under quarantine, regardless of their eligibility, will have access to remote learning.
Planning for school year
With the IDPH endorsing the new CDC guidance, school administrators and district superintendents can plan for the new school year with greater clarity. Some of the loosened restrictions, such discontinuing mask use during recess, or partially reining in sweeping quarantining requirements that were extremely disruptive to learning, will be welcomed by everyone.
The significantly greater freedom for vaccinated students and staff will no doubt be a relief to them and their families. Many parents, however, would like to see certain COVID-19 protocols, such as mask requirements, waived for all students and likely find the new guidance disappointing.