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Mass. education leaders finalize updates for local schools as CDC eases school guidance on quarantines and test screenings

Students walking to classes at Burlington High School.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated COVID-19 guidance for schools on Thursday, easing some prevention strategies schools have used throughout the pandemic to control the spread of the virus.

Previous CDC guidance said fully vaccinated students did not have to quarantine after being exposed to COVID. But the new guidance no longer recommends quarantining for anyone after exposure to the virus, unless exposure occurs in so-called “high-risk” settings like correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and nursing homes.

“In schools and [early care and education] settings, which are generally not considered high-risk congregate settings, people who were exposed to COVID-19 should follow recommendations to wear a well-fitting mask and get tested,” the guidance says. “K-12 school and ECE administrators can decide how to manage exposures based on the local context and benefits of preserving access to in-person learning.”

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The CDC also made changes to guidance around “test to stay,” a program launched last year aimed at keeping young children and staff in classrooms instead of quarantining at home, and said since people no longer are recommended to quarantine after exposure, testing isn’t needed. But if schools want to continue requiring students to quarantine, they can.

Routine COVID screening tests in K-12 schools also are no longer recommend in the updated guidance. But when COVID levels are high in a community, the CDC said schools can consider implementing screening tests for students and staff participating in high-risk activities like close contact sports, before or after big events like prom, and when returning from breaks during the school year.

Additionally, the guidance still recommends indoor masking when COVID is at a high-level in communities and continues to emphasize the importance of school buildings needing to have improved ventilation.

“This latest guidance from the CDC should give our students, parents, and educators the confidence they need to head back to school this year with a sense of joy and optimism,” US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “While COVID continues to evolve, so has our understanding of the science and what it takes to return to school safely.”

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In Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are finalizing fall COVID guidance for schools and expect to release updates early next week, according to a spokesperson from the state Executive Office of Education.

State officials and education leaders already have begun to ease some guidelines and precautions for schools. In February, Governor Charlie Baker lifted the statewide requirement for masks be worn in schools, leaving the decision to local leaders.

Boston Public Schools was among the last remaining districts across the state that kept a mask mandate in place after the state lifted the requirement; the district dropped the mandate closer to the end of last school year in June. A study released this week comparing Massachusetts schools that maintained masking requirements early this year with those that dropped them found new evidence that masks were beneficial in protecting students and staff from COVID.

BPS is expected to release its updated COVID guidance ahead of the upcoming school year, but said it is under review.

“The safety and well-being of our students and staff are of the utmost importance,” said Gabrielle Farrell, the district’s chief communications officer. “We are still in the process of reviewing the newly-released CDC guidance with our partners at the Boston Public Health Commission.”

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In May, the Department of Early Education and Care, the Department of Public Health, and DESE also updated isolation and quarantine guidance for children in child care centers and other educational settings. The guidance currently states children who have been exposed to COVID no longer are required to quarantine, allowing them to stay in class or child care settings as long as they are asymptomatic.

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley also sent out a memo to superintendents at the end of May saying the state no longer will supply self-tests or other COVID testing services to schools starting this fall. But if some districts wanted to run their own program in the fall, the state recommended focusing on symptomatic testing only, and said districts could buy tests off the Statewide Contract.


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.