The newly released CDC guidance that eases COVID-19 precautions in schools has it mostly right: At this point in the pandemic, the emphasis must shift from universal mandates to individual decisions.
Previous guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was appropriate for the last school year, but it is out of step with the situation today.
Masks and distancing are mitigation measures that were needed before vaccines became widely available for school-age children. Now, everyone 6 months and older can be vaccinated, and those 5 years old and above can be boosted. Moreover, the vast majority of children have been exposed to COVID. A CDC study found that as of February, 3 out of 4 kids have had the coronavirus. By now, most children, and most of the general population, are well protected from severe illness as a result of vaccination, prior infection or both.
In addition, the omicron subvariants cause less severe disease compared with previous variants. Multiple studies have found that they are also less likely to result in long COVID, which vaccination further protects against.
The CDC's new guidance removes blanket distancing and cohorting requirements. Importantly, it also allows children exposed to COVID to stay in class. This should prevent entire classrooms from being forced to stay home because one child tested positive.
Masking in areas of high transmission remains part of the guidance, although a survey of 500 of the largest K-12 school districts found that 98% no longer plan to mandate masks.
I think it's particularly telling that the revised recommendations no longer advocate regular testing, which diagnosed countless children with asymptomatic infections, forcing them to isolate and miss school. Instead of applying across-the-board mitigation measures for everyone, the CDC is acknowledging the continued prevalence of the coronavirus and encouraging people to choose the precautions right for them.
People who are immunocompromised or who live with people at higher risk for severe illness should take additional precautions. High-quality masks (N95 or an equivalent) continue to protect. Parents can add measures based on changing circumstances, for example, by asking kids to mask for a week and then test right before visiting vulnerable family members.
This kind of individual risk calculus is already the norm for the rest of society. Adults do not have to distance, mask or quarantine for work, leisure or travel. And, the downside of mandatory precautions in kids is much higher than for adults. Moreover, the coronavirus will likely be around for our children's entire lifetimes. Restrictions cannot last forever.
Those opposed to the CDC easing restrictions warn that the new policies will lead to superspreader events at schools. They are right. Schools will have more outbreaks. But daily outbreaks already occur at conferences, weddings, restaurants, gyms and workplaces.
Rather, everyone engaging in public life should be aware that those around them could be infected with the coronavirus. They should protect themselves with vaccines, know which treatments they are eligible for and take precautions such as masking according to their level of risk tolerance. Students, teachers and school staff are no different.
For the families who have been vigilant throughout much of the pandemic, doing away with restrictions will feel jarring. Some might wonder whether their previous caution was warranted. It was, just as the CDC's previous school guidance was justified. But policies must adjust. I am very glad to see the CDC shifting its orientation away from blanket restrictions, especially for children.
Leana S. Wen, a Washington Post contributing columnist who writes the newsletter The Checkup with Dr. Wen, is a professor at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health and author of the book "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health." Previously, she served as Baltimore's health commissioner.