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CDC Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools

This page was created on July 16, 2021 and last updated on September 1, 2021.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released updated Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.

The guidance developed by the CDC continues to highlight the importance of public health prevention strategies. Schools should continue to utilize prevention strategies such as masking, physical distancing, testing, ventilation, handwashing, and staying home when sick to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

While previous public health guidance recommended alternative instructional models to prevent transmission, the recently updated CDC guidance prioritizes layered prevention strategies that can be implemented by schools to maintain full in-person instruction.

The information below highlights some of the more significant changes the CDC has made to its public health guidance to support in-person learning while implementing strategies to prevent transmission of COVID-19 among students and staff. Schools should refer to the full CDC guidance to plan for the upcoming school year, as the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education will not be releasing separate state guidance or recommendations at this time.

The CDC information below is current as of August 13, 2021.

Responding to Cases

When a case of COVID-19 is identified in a school setting, schools should refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocol outlining what to do if a student becomes sick or reports a new COVID-19 diagnosis at school.

In addition to following the above CDC flowchart, schools should continue to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) or county or municipal health departments (CMHD) to complete contact tracing for individuals diagnosed or exposed to COVID-19. As part of the contact tracing process, DOH and CMHDs will continue to work with schools to gather information about potential close contacts. CDC Steps for Determining Close Contact and Quarantine in K-12 Schools.

For more details on case reporting and outreach to DOH,  access the training webinar. Access the slides featured in the webinar. (PDF) As a reminder, all school to DOH outreach will be channeled through self-report link for streamlined communication as well as tracking purposes.

Schools within a CMHD jurisdiction should work with their local health department when responding to cases of COVID-19 in a school setting.


Face Coverings and Masks

On December 10, 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the Acting Secretary of Health's school masking order.

Please note that this decision does not impact the federal directive requiring all passengers and drivers to wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems; these requirements remain in effect. It also does not impact the federal masking mandate issued for Head Start and Early Head Start grantees.

School entities still possess the authority and are encouraged to require masks in their facilities as recommended by CDC. Masking in school settings minimizes the spread of COVID-19, particularly in settings where individuals and students are not vaccinated, and allows for reduced quarantining to keep individual students and staff in school.

Finally, the elimination of the statewide PreK-12 school mask requirement does not change how schools respond to COVID-19 cases in schools, address outbreaks, or report data to the PA Department of Health (DOH). Schools should continue to refer to the guidance contained on the Responding to Cases webpage.

Physical Distancing

  • The CDC recommends maintaining at least 3 feet of physical distance between students in classrooms, with additional layered mitigation efforts employed if distance recommendations would prevent a school from fully reopening.

Contact Tracing, Isolation, and Quarantine

  • Schools should continue to work with DOH or county or municipal health departments (CMHD) to complete contact tracing for individuals diagnosed or exposed to COVID-19. As part of the contact tracing process, DOH and CMHDs will continue to work with schools to gather information about potential close contacts.
  • The CDC guidance adds the following exception to the definition of close contact:
    • In the K–12 indoor classroom setting, the close contact definition excludes students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student (laboratory-confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) where:
      • both students were engaged in consistent and correct use of well-fitting face masks; and
      • other K–12 school prevention strategies (such as universal and correct mask use, physical distancing, increased ventilation) were in place in the K–12 school setting.
    • This exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults in the indoor classroom setting.

Sports and Extracurricular Activities

  • Per the CDC guidance, individuals who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks or physically distance when participating in sports and extracurricular activities.
  • CDC recommends K-12 schools implement prevention strategies, including masking and physical distancing, during sports and extracurricular activities for those who participate and are not fully vaccinated.
  • The CDC recommends that schools consider screening testing for those participating in sports who are not fully vaccinated to facilitate safe participation and reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19. The CDC's Screening Testing Recommendations for K-12 Schools by Level of Community Transmission provides recommendations for screening testing by level of community transmission. As outlined in the table, when a community exhibits a high level of community transmission, the CDC recommends canceling or holding high-risk sports or extracurricular activities virtually to protect in-person learning, unless all participants are fully vaccinated.