Parenting·4 min read

What the New COVID-19 CDC Guidelines Mean for Back to School

The CDC Updated Its COVID-19 Guidelines for Schools
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Aug 23, 2022

The new CDC guidelines for COVID-19 are here. And they have us doing an about-face on things we’ve all been doing since what feels like forever (think: quarantining, contact tracing, and social distancing). 

The relaxed guidance will make for the most ‘normal’ school year since the start of the pandemic, from daycare all the way up to high school.

If it seems like the CDC has been doing some soul-searching, it has. CDC director Rochelle Walensky said the agency needed an overhaul to better share data, develop public health guidance, and communicate with the public. (ICYMI: The CDC has gotten a lot of hate for its handling of the pandemic). 

So, why the change to the CDC’s COVID guidelines now?

CDC leaders said we’re at a different spot now in the pandemic. There is widespread access to vaccines, booster shots, and antiviral medications that can reduce the risk of severe disease or hospitalization. And most people have some immunity to COVID-19, either from the vaccine or infection (or both). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 14.4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, which represents about 18.4% of all cumulative cases. (Psst: Here’s what we know about kids and long COVID).

But CDC data shows nearly 34% of counties in the US are at a high-risk community level. And vaccination rates in children remain low: Only 30% of kids aged 5-11 are fully vaccinated, and  60% of kids 12 - 17. And according to the AAP, only about 6% of kids under 5 had received at least one dose.

Here’s what else you need to know about how the new CDC guidelines impact back to school in 2022. Reminder: The CDC provides recommendations — but schools ultimately decide what rules to put in place. 

CDC mask guidelines for COVID-19

The new guidance didn’t change masking recommendations. The CDC says everyone (vaccinated or not) 2 and older should still wear a well-fitting mask (preferably N95s or KN95s) in indoor spaces when the local COVID-19 levels are high. But schools are saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ Most US schools are mask-optional, with only 7 of the top 500 school districts requiring masks at school.

At the end of the day, deciding whether your kid should wear a mask at school is a personal choice. Even where there are legal battles over mask mandates or confusion on the rules, most schools allow students and staff to wear them if that’s what makes them comfortable. 

CDC quarantine guidelines if your kid is exposed to COVID

This just in: They no longer need to quarantine (no matter their vaccination status). The CDC now recommends people mask up for 10 days and get tested five days after they were exposed.

The other big shift: The CDC said schools no longer need to “test-to-stay.” That approach allowed students who were close contacts of someone who tested positive to avoid quarantine (and stay in-person) as long as they had no symptoms and tested negative. 

CDC guidelines if your kid tests positive for COVID 

The CDC recs they quarantine for at least five days even if they’re vaccinated. If after five days your child is fever-free for 24 hours and symptoms are improving, they can stop quarantining (aka: freedom on day six). 

But the CDC says they need two negative tests 48 hours apart before going out in public again without a mask. The new guidance recommends people take their first test on day six of isolation if they don’t have fevers. 

PSA: The FDA recommends you take multiple tests if using at-home antigen tests to avoid a ‘false negative.’ (We know, take a breath). And here’s a pro tip: You can order a third round of free at-home tests from the gov. Plus,  insurance companies will cover at-homes tests (either up front or by reimbursement).  

CDC guidelines for asymptomatic testing 

The CDC also got out the red pen. They no longer rec that asymptomatic people get tested regularly. Instead, the CDC suggests schools at high-community levels consider testing students and staff involved in “high-risk activities” (aka: close contact sports, band, choir, and theater). 

CDC recommendations for the COVID-19 vaccine

Kids as young as 6 months old are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. And the CDC reiterated that the shots protect people against serious illness, hospitalization, and death. The CDC recommends that some older kids and adults also get boosters. About 67% of the US population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But rates are much lower in children.


The CDC loosened COVID-19 guidelines that could change the way schools handle quarantines and testing. School leaders ultimately decide if they want to follow these suggestions. And while some parents may be celebrating the end of quarantines and class disruptions, others are concerned about high case counts and low vaccination rates in kids. 

Live Smarter

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.