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CDC Recommends Shorter Isolation Period for COVID-19

Students and staff who contract COVID-19 no longer need to automatically isolate for five days, according to new guidance issued this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC still recommends that those with the coronavirus stay home from school or work for at least a full day after their symptoms improve and they no longer have a fever for at least 24 hours. The CDC continues to recommend those infected wash their hands, use masks, and keep physical distance from others where possible for at least five days.

According to CDC Director Mandy Cohen, the agency changed its recommendations because 98 percent of Americans now have at least partial COVID immunity and there are more effective treatments for the illness.

The guidance unifies prevention strategies for three common respiratory diseases that have been surging in schools: COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. It plans to release additional guidance for schools by the end of the school year including strategies to control the spread of other illnesses such as norovirus and strep pharyngitis.

The CDC continues to call for people to get immunized, practice good hygiene, and install updated indoor air-quality systems.

“The bottom line is that when people follow these actionable recommendations to avoid getting sick, and to protect themselves and others if they do get sick, it will help limit the spread of respiratory viruses, and that will mean fewer people who experience severe illness,” says Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a statement. The center focuses on research and monitoring of illnesses like COVID and the flu.

As coronavirus outbreaks have become less frequent and schools continue to work to help students recover academically from lost instruction during the pandemic, most districts have rolled back most or all quarantine rules enacted during the pandemic, including masking and mandated isolation. In a nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center in January, more than 6 in 10 educators say they never wear a face mask at school, and only 3 percent say they mask nearly every day.

“I don’t think this will be a big change for most schools,” said Kate King, the president of the National Association of School Nurses.

King, a school nurse at World Language Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, said her school still offers free masks and allows parents to keep their children home if they are sick, but COVID-related absences are considered parent-excused rather than medically excused without a doctor’s note.

However, the pandemic has led to lasting behavior changes at schools that may help cut down on outbreaks of all kinds, King said.

“[The pandemic] has really raised awareness of hand washing and what we call ‘respiratory etiquette’—coughing and sneezing in your elbow rather than in your hands, use of hand sanitizer, and hand washing,” King said. “I do see both students and staff—when they feel bad, when they have a cold or a runny nose—they do wear masks for that duration. So, I don’t think it’s huge, but I do think there is more awareness.”

Immunization still a priority

The CDC also urged schools to do more to encourage students and staff to get updated immunizations for flu, COVID-19, and, if available, a new RSV vaccine still being rolled out.

Vaccination rates have fallen for school-age children for both flu and coronavirus in the 2023-24 season. Just over half of children and adolescents have gotten a flu immunization this season, down from 53 percent last season and nearly 60 percent before the pandemic in 2020. COVID vaccination rates are even lower. While about a third of children 5-11 and nearly 60 percent of those ages 12-17 completed the initial two-dose vaccination before the end of the 2022-23 school year, only about 13 percent of school-age children have received the updated booster in 2023-24.

School-based immunization efforts have continued since the pandemic, King said. “Our real focus as school nurses is school-located vaccine clinics,” she said. “We know that that is the key to preventing all of these diseases … and school is the best place. Parents trust schools; they don’t have to miss work, and kids are already here.”

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