As schools plan for the next academic year, the CDC updated their reopening guidelines for students and staff. Here's the breakdown.

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In many parts of the United States, there's widespread optimism around the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone 12 or older is now eligible for vaccines that are safe and stunningly effective. Case rates in many areas have reached lows that seemed unimaginable a year ago. After a school year that switched between remote and in-person learning, a consensus has grown that the 2021-2022 school year can safely look much more normal for nearly all kids. 

teacher wipes down school tables in classroom
Credit: izusek/Getty Images

Central to this effort is an ongoing evolution in our collective understanding about the risks and prevention of COVID-19. We're a long way from closing playgrounds in March 2020. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an update to their school reopening guidelines. Many districts use this advice as the basis for their reopening decisions and, as a result, the CDC guidelines carry a lot of weight. 

The new guidelines will go a long way toward supporting schools' fully reopening in the fall, but some provisions are a reminder that the pandemic and its consequences are still with us.

Here are the main updates in the CDC's latest reopening guidelines for schools and childcare programs. The organizations mostly serve children under 12, who aren't yet eligible to be vaccinated. So while the CDC says that vaccination is the best prevention strategy, the guidelines encourage a layered approach to COVID-19 risk mitigation, especially where vaccination isn't an option. 

1. Kids Should Keep Wearing Masks Inside

The CDC says that unvaccinated people, including children over 2, should keep masking indoors. Masks generally aren't needed outside, since the risk of transmission is much lower. Vaccinated teachers and staff (like other vaccinated people) don't need to wear masks inside. However, some schools and childcare centers may make masking mandatory if they know that local vaccination rates are low or if they don't have a way to determine who on staff is and isn't vaccinated. 

On July 20, the American Association of Pediatrics announced its recommendation of universal masking for children in school. The advisory group said this recommendation was warranted since so many children are still ineligible for vaccines, and so that schools don't have to keep track of students' vaccination status.

2. No More Hybrid Learning Because of Social Distancing

A big takeaway from the latest guidance is a reduction in the physical distancing requirements. Previously, the CDC advised keeping students 6 feet apart as much as was practicable. That distance has been revised down to 3 feet instead, and the agency says that programs "should not exclude children from in-person care to keep a minimum distance requirement." 

Many districts implemented hybrid learning schedules during the pandemic because of the 6-foot social distancing recommendation. They simply didn't have enough space in classrooms for all the kids to attend and still stay that far apart. The latest guidelines encourage in-person attendance even if distancing is decreased. A large study in Massachusetts found that COVID-19 transmission didn't increase at the lower distance when masks were worn. People who are fully vaccinated do not need to stay socially distanced from others, the guidance states. 

But unvaccinated staff and teachers should wear masks and stay socially distanced as often as is feasible. 

3. Prepare to Keep Quarantining (Though Hopefully Less Often)

Unvaccinated people who are exposed to COVID-19 will still need to quarantine for 14 days, or less if their locality supports testing out of quarantine. Some public health authorities or school districts allow for a return to school or childcare with a negative test performed at least 5 days after the exposure. 

Fortunately, as the prevalence of COVID-19 in communities continues to fall, people become less likely to be exposed and thus there should be fewer quarantines needed. However, this will vary from community to community. Some school districts have revised when children's exposure requires quarantining in order to minimize disruptions to learning when other mitigation measures like masking are in place. 

Overall, the latest CDC guidelines suggest that most schools will be able to open in the fall for full-time, in-person learning for their students, even those too young to be vaccinated.