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CDC Relaxes Isolation, Quarantine Guidelines for Schools

U.S. agency’s guidance is now in line with that for the general population

Covid-19 quarantine and isolation guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been met with criticism from some public-health experts.

By Sarah Toy

Updated Jan. 6, 2022 8:45 pm ET

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its Covid-19 quarantine and isolation guidance for K-12 schools Thursday, bringing it in line with less stringent recommendations for the general public announced last week.

Those who are infected or have symptoms of Covid-19 must isolate regardless of vaccination status, the agency said in the new guidelines. Students, teachers and staff can end isolation after five days after their initial positive test or the onset of symptoms, or if they are fever-free for 24 hours without using fever-reducing medication and their symptoms have improved.

The CDC said people should continue to wear a well-fitting mask around others at home and in public for five more days after the end of the initial five-day isolation period.

If students, teachers or staff who are infected still have a fever or if their symptoms haven’t improved after five days, the CDC recommends staying in isolation until they are fever-free—without using fever-reducing medicine—and other symptoms have improved.

In public health, isolation refers to people separating themselves from others when they are sick or have an infection, whereas people quarantine when they have been exposed to a disease but haven’t tested positive themselves.

To help combat Omicron, the Biden administration is opening up more Covid testing sites and delivering 500 million Covid tests to Americans. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down why testing is still a pain point in the U.S., two years into the pandemic. Photo Illustration: David Fang

For quarantine, people should try to stay away from people who they live with, especially those who are high-risk, the CDC says. In isolation, the CDC recommends that people stay in a specific “sick room” or area and use a separate bathroom if possible.

Students, teachers and staff 18 years or older who have been in close contact with someone with Covid-19 should quarantine for at least five days if they haven’t been boosted or had a recently confirmed infection, the CDC said.

Those who don’t need to quarantine after an exposure, according to the CDC: people who are 18 or older who are fully vaccinated, including boosters; those who are 5-17 years old who are fully vaccinated; and those who have had confirmed Covid-19 within the last 90 days.

Note: For all 50 states and D.C., U.S. territories and cruises. Last updated Jan. 7, at 6:00 a.m.

Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

The CDC still recommends that students, teachers and staff wear a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days from the date of their last exposure to someone with Covid-19. They should get tested at least five days afterward, the agency said, and if they test positive, they should isolate.

The agency has also said that routine testing, in addition to vaccination, is an effective in reducing risk and keeping schools open, and it recently endorsed the “test-to-stay” model in which students and staff can test frequently in lieu of quarantine. Those who opt for test-to-stay should wear well-fitted masks while at school and stay home if they develop symptoms or test positive, the agency said.

In recent months, an increasing number of states and schools have participated in test-to-stay or else have opted to offer testing options for students and staff. Covid-19 tests, however, are hard to find in many places, as surging Omicron cases have pushed demand.

“Many people with Covid-19, especially children and teens, don’t have symptoms but can still spread the virus, so regular testing helps find people who have the virus before it can spread to others,” the agency said on its website. “Finding who has the virus early means steps can be taken to prevent Covid-19 from spreading and causing an outbreak, so schools can stay open.”

The updated guidance for schools mirrors the guidance published last week for the general population, when the CDC cut the recommended time for both isolation and quarantine. The recommendations paved the way for people to return to work and social activities sooner and help minimize disruptions. But it also received pushback from some public-health experts, who wanted the CDC to add a negative antigen test requirement to leave isolation after day five, because some people still could be contagious at that time.

In response, the CDC said those who have access to a test and want to test should use an antigen test toward the end of the five day period if their symptoms have improved. The person should continue to isolate until day 10 if the test is positive, the CDC said, but could leave isolation and wear a well-fitted mask until day 10 if it was negative. But the agency stopped short of requiring a test before leaving isolation.

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