The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its new COVID guidelines Thursday, shifting several recommendations just days after Chicago Public Schools issued its own set of policies for the 2022-2023 school year.
Both guidelines are reflective of continued efforts to loosen restrictions as new treatments and vaccine formulations continue to be released.
“We are in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools – like vaccination, boosters and treatments – to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19,” Dr. Greta Massetti of the CDC said in a statement. “This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.”
As the classroom inches closer, Chicago remains at what the CDC classifies as a “medium” community transmission of the virus.
Only about 9% of Chicagoans under five years old have received first doses of the COVID vaccine, according to Chicago Public Health Department commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, a number she said she isn’t “pleased” with while stressing the importance of vaccines.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez echoed Arwady’s sentiments, saying “There is no better protection than vaccination. One of our goals for the new school year is having our children be learning safely in our classrooms. The best way to accomplish that for families is through vaccinations.”
However, vaccines will not be mandated for the school year, and neither will masks — with Arwady emphasizing that as COVID continues to evolve, so will guidelines around the virus.
“CPS and all schools around Chicago have been doing a lot of preparation for the upcoming school year, and there are a huge amount of resources that have gone into this at CPS,” Arwady said. “COVID continues to change, and it’s important that the protocols continue to evolve as we learn more.”
Here’s a breakdown of how the current CPS COVID guidelines compare to the CDC’s newly streamlined recommendations.
Under this year’s protocols, students aren’t required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, although the district still “strongly encourages” eligible individuals to do so. A vaccination requirement remains in place for CPS staff.
As of Aug. 12, more than 91% of district staff members are fully vaccinated, according to a CPS spokesperson.
The CDC said it will continuously “promote the importance of being up to date with vaccination,” noting that vaccines provide protection against infection and transmission, especially against variants that are currently circulating.
“Close Contact” and “Test-to-Stay” Procedures
According to officials, there will be changes to the district’s “close contact” protocols, including a step away from the “test-to-stay” program that the district had previously used. Both of these procedures are used when COVID cases are detected in a classroom.
Officials say that just 1.5% of people deemed to be “close contacts” of COVID patients ended up testing positive for the virus themselves, leading to the changes.
Unvaccinated individuals will have the following three options when they are deemed to be a “close contact” of a COVID case:
- Submit proof of full vaccination
- Learn/work from home for a period of five days, and then wear a mask in school for days 6-10
- Participate in “Test-to-Stay” protocols
Under those “Test-to-Stay” protocols, students and faculty must:
- Obtain two rapid tests from their school
- Test negative on the Monday and Thursday after exposure, submit results to CPS
- Remain symptom-free throughout the following days
- Wear a mask and refrain from participating in sports and extracurricular activities for 10 days after exposure
In its updated policies, the CDC dropped its quarantining guidelines for exposed individuals altogether, instead recommending that they wear a high-quality mask for 10 days and get tested on day 5 regardless of vaccination status.
Routine surveillance testing of people without symptoms is no longer recommended in most settings, according to the CDC.
Individuals who test positive, however, should continue to isolate for at least five days, the CDC said.
According to CPS, masking will not be required in most situations, but is still “strongly recommended.” Masks will be available to those who request them, according to officials.
In certain instances, however, masking will be required:
- Students and staff who are returning from isolation after a positive COVID test will be required to wear a mask until they have passed 10 days since the onset of their symptoms
- Individuals who are identified as “close contacts” of COVID patients will have to mask for 10 days following their exposure, regardless of their vaccination status
- If there are three or more cases of COVID within a single classroom, students and faculty will be required to wear a mask for at least 10 days after the last positive result is reported
The CDC continues to recommend that individuals wear masks indoors in places where community COVID levels are “high.”
Individuals who were exposed to COVID are encouraged to wear a high-quality mask for 10 days, and individuals who test positive for the virus are recommended to isolate for at least five days and mask for 10 days, according to the CDC.
Contact Tracing Changes
While the CDC now recommends case investigation and contact tracing only in health care settings and certain high-risk congregate settings, contract tracing will still be done at the classroom level in elementary schools.
That means if one individual tests positive for the virus, every other individual in the classroom will automatically be deemed “close contacts” and will be notified of the test result.
Those individuals would then be required to wear a ma/lisk for up to 10 days after the exposure.
In high schools, contact tracing will be done at an individual level. The response will vary depending on whether or not the student or staff member is vaccinated against COVID.
Vaccinated students and faculty who are deemed “close contacts” will be allowed to remain in school as long as they wear a mask for 10 days after their exposure.
Unvaccinated students and staff will be required to work or study from home for five days, and then to wear a mask for days 6-through-10, unless they opt to participate in “Test-to-Stay” protocols.
Weekly Testing and More:
The CDC noted that physical distance is just one component of protection against the virus, highlighting that ventilation and local COVID risk levels are important, too.
CPS stated that air filters have been replaced in all of its schools. It also said it will thoroughly clean and disinfect all schools prior to the school year.
According to Martinez, CPS will offer four permanent vaccination clinics at across the city, along with a traveling mobile clinics.
Weekly testing will not be required. Students and faculty who wish to enroll in weekly COVID testing must do so prior to the school year with new consent forms. Here’s where to find those. Unvaccinated students and faculty are encouraged, but not required, to enroll. Testing will begin on Aug. 29, with at-home tests offered the week of Aug. 22.