COVID

State officials release COVID-19 guidance for approaching school year

“This upcoming school year, districts and schools should focus their COVID mitigation strategies towards vulnerable and symptomatic individuals.”

Mark Lennihan / The Associated Press, File

A new school year is just around the corner, prompting state officials to release the latest round of COVID-19 guidance for Massachusetts schools and districts.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, along with the state’s Department of Public Health, announced Monday it is not recommending universal mask mandates (except for in school health offices), surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals, contact tracing, or “test-to-stay” programs for the 2022-2023 academic year.

Both statewide school mask requirements and DESE’s COVID-19 testing programs were dropped in the spring.

DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and Department of Public Health Commissioner Margaret Cooke wrote in a memo on Monday that the newest updates to the state’s guidance for schools are in line with the latest recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“This upcoming school year, districts and schools should focus their COVID mitigation strategies towards vulnerable and symptomatic individuals,” the officials said.

Following the CDC’s recently updated guidance for isolation after exposure to COVID-19, the state officials said staff and children can continue to attend school or their programming as long as they remain asymptomatic, rather than quarantining.

“No asymptomatic person should be excluded from school as a result of exposure, regardless of vaccination status or exposure setting,” Riley and Cooke wrote in their memo.

In the state’s isolation and exposure guidance for child care, K-12, and recreational camp settings, officials said anyone who has potentially been exposed to the virus and can wear a mask should do so until 10 days have passed, testing on Day 6 of exposure.

Rapid antigen tests, rather than PCR tests, are preferred by the state for most situations.

Those who test positive must isolate for at least five days. But if a person is asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving and they have been without a fever without taking fever-reducing medicine for 24 hours, the state said they may return to school/programming after Day 5, wearing a high-quality mask through Day 10.

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If a child has a negative test on Day 5 or later, they don’t have to wear a mask.

“Symptomatic individuals can remain in their school or program if they have mild symptoms, are tested immediately onsite, and that test is negative,” the state said. “Best practice would also include wearing a mask, if possible, until symptoms are fully resolved.”

If a child or staff member cannot be tested immediately, the state said they should be sent home but allowed to return if symptoms remain mild and they test negative — or if they have been fever free for 24 hours (without help from a fever-reducing medicine) or if they are given a different diagnosis by a medical professional. 

A negative test is “strongly recommended” for returning, according to the state. 

Riley and Cooke also stressed that anyone who wants to continue to wear a mask “should be supported in that choice.” The officials also reiterated a recommendation from the spring that schools and districts that are interested in implementing their own testing program for the school year restrict the scope to symptomatic rapid testing. 

Starting during the summer, the officials said that only positive tests conducted at school sites by staff have to be reported to the state. 

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“Please note that the 180-day school year requirement remains in effect,” Riley and Cooke said. “Any school closures due to COVID-19 emergencies will be treated like snow day closures, with additional days added to the school year if needed to meet the 180-school day requirement.”

If feasible, students should be allowed to livestream classes from home if they need to isolate, they wrote.

The officials urged districts to continue to ensure ventilation systems work correctly and to “increase outdoor air flow supply such as by opening windows in classrooms as feasible.” 

They also stressed the continued importance of COVID-19 vaccination and staying up-to-date with booster doses. 

Another vaccination, for the flu, also remains of utmost importance, Riley and Cooke wrote. 

“It continues to be essential that the educational and public health communities, as well as cities and towns, work together to ensure as many children and adults as possible receive flu vaccines,” they wrote. “This will reduce the number of students and staff who need to stay home due to illness.”

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