Covid testing in schools can replace quarantine, CDC says

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After two new studies were released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday, the agency has stated it will update its materials to help schools implement a “test to stay” policy instead of quarantines after Covid exposure if schools are able to do so. 

Test-to-stay would allow unvaccinated students to stay in school if they repeatedly test negative for the virus after recent exposure. The programs were piloted in two locations, Lake County, Ill. and Los Angeles County, Calif., and were found to be effective. 

The CDC has thorough guidelines on how schools should manage Covid exposures—and up until this point, strict quarantines have been the norm. If you’ve had kids in school during the Covid pandemic, or if you’re a teacher, you’ve likely been affected firsthand by these school quarantines and closures. Though quarantines can help stop the spread of the virus, they’re not without repercussions. When kids or teachers are quarantined, sometimes as long as 14 days, it can have major impacts on childcare, as well as interrupt school and work for other family members. 

Given the recent uptick in cases, the CDC will not update its formal guidelines to recommend test-to-stay for all schools nationwide at this time—but will have materials available for schools who want to enact the policy in their districts.

What is test-to-stay?

Test-to-stay after a Covid exposure in school involves letting unvaccinated students stay in school if they uphold required prevention strategies (mask wearing, physical distancing, self-monitoring for symptoms) and test for Covid at least twice over a seven-day period. 

In the Lake County study, implementing test-to-stay between August and October 2021 saved 8,200 in-person learning days, and the rate of secondary transmission after initial exposure was just 1.5%. 

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CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

“These studies demonstrate that test-to-stay works to keep unvaccinated children in school safely,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, calling it “a promising and proven practice.”

Test-to-stay does require that schools have certain resources, such as a large supply of tests available for students and faculty, and it puts the onus on school faculty to administer the tests, which is a big ask of staff and teachers who are already doing so much. But it can protect in-person learning, which has major benefits for students. 

Why are school quarantines controversial?

Some experts have lamented that school quarantines interrupt learning, impact mental health and make childcare and work responsibilities that much harder to manage in a pandemic where everything (and everyone) is already holding on by a thread. 

With the rise of the Omicron variant, more and more schools across the country are currently closing and enacting quarantines in order to help slow the spread of the highly contagious variant. Getting vaccinated and boosted if eligible, wearing masks indoors and self-monitoring for symptoms are still of the utmost importance in helping to keep kids—especially those ineligible for vaccination—safe.

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