As students returned to school across North Carolina this week, school leaders are facing a daunting challenge: how to academically support students knocked off track by the pandemic while still navigating an ongoing COVID pandemic that puts student and staff health in jeopardy.
This critical challenge is heightened by lack of strong guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and state agencies. Once again, it’s our school leaders who are being asked to serve the role of our community’s leading public health practitioners. Luckily, we now know what steps schools should be taking to protect students and staff from COVID infection. These actions will, in turn, protect the continuation of in-person learning that’s critical for boosting academic outcomes.
CDC Guidelines for 22-23
Federal and state health agencies continue to adopt a lasses faire approach more focused on the short-term health of the economy rather than the long-term health of its citizens. Guidelines have been loosened for this school year despite continued community spread and increasingly grim news about the long-term impacts of COVID infections.
In general, the updated CDC guidance for schools this year consists of loose recommendations rather than mandates. The CDC’s recommendations for schools vary based on a measure called “COVID-19 Community Levels.” COVID-19 Community Levels ranks counties based largely on ICU bed availability. These measures were unveiled by the CDC in in February after corporations complained about worker shortages during the Omicron wave. The measures have been roundly criticized by public health experts, mostly for putting the focus on minimizing hospital bed shortages instead of focusing on limiting COVID transmission, and relying on lagging indicators that only raise alarms after community spread is already at dangerously high levels.
The CDC only recommends universal masking when the COVID-19 Community Levels are high. Students with immunocompromised family members are largely on their own. The guidelines state that such students should wear a mask at medium and high COVID-19 Community Levels, but there’s no requirement to mask placed on their non-immunocompromised classmates.
The CDC no longer recommends screening testing. They only recommend diagnostic testing of students or staff with symptoms or who have been exposed to people with confirmed cases.
Students who test positive are supposed to isolate for just five days and wear a mask for another five days.
Students who are exposed to positive cases are no longer expected to quarantine.
The CDC recommends that schools “optimize ventilation” but provides no mandatory standards. Open windows and outdoor classrooms are only recommended when the school is having an outbreak or when the COVID-19 Community Level is high.
North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services does not place any additional requirements on schools or make stricter recommendations. They simply defer to the CDC.
Why schools need public health leadership
It is both unfair, and bad public health policy, to place these decisions on school officials. Read more