CDC Issues New Masking Guidance One Day After ISBE/IDPH Guidance Confirms Local Flexibility for Mitigation Measures in Schools

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In a new FAQ issued, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) confirm that the adoption of the CDC’s July 9 guidance means local control of mitigation layers—most notably masking, physical distancing, and testing. However, the guidance includes a major incentive for school districts to require masking for unvaccinated individuals: a “Test-to-Stay” quarantine option where students can remain in school with negative testing.  The local school control does not extend to quarantines—instead, the guidance states that local health departments are the final authority on deciding who needs to be quarantined.  

The new FAQ stresses the importance of mask-wearing for unvaccinated individuals. This coming just before the CDC gave guidance during a press conference urging even vaccinated individuals to wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission, including in schools. The IDPH has already announced that it will follow the CDC’s new recommendations, and recommend that “everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas of substantial and high transmissions, and in K-12 schools.” It also confirmed that it will update its FAQ guidance to reflect this new recommendation. Given the ever-changing guidance and local factors relevant to decisions about mitigation, school districts are left with complex determinations to start the school year.

Quarantine Requirements Clarified 

First, the good news: fully vaccinated individuals and those with documented COVID-19 infection within the past 90 days are excluded from quarantines.   

Quarantines for unvaccinated individuals will remain disruptive.  Individuals will continue to be close contacts in the following scenarios: 

  • Individuals Unmasked (unvaccinated students) and all unvaccinated adults: within 6 feet of infected person for 15 cumulative minutes over 24 hours 
  • Individuals Masked (unvaccinated students only): within 3 feet of infected person for 15 cumulative minutes over 24 hours 

The local health department will make final determinations on who is to be quarantined, for how long, and whether modified quarantine options are available for the individual.  The quarantine options are: 

  • 14 calendar days 
  • 10 calendar days (no symptoms, return with masking and distancing) 
  • 7 calendar days, no symptoms, and negative PCR test at day 6 (no symptoms, return with masking and distancing) 
  • Test-to-Stay: No removal with negative tests on day one, three, five, and seven (BUT only applies where positive student and close contact students wore masks, the school requires masking for all unvaccinated individuals, and exposure did not occur in the home.)  

Whether IDPH will further modify these quarantine options in light of today’s announcement that they now recommend universal mask-wearing in schools regardless of vaccination status is an open issue and one that we will be monitoring closely.

Mitigation Guidance 

Vaccination. The FAQ stresses vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy. COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory currently, so the guidance provides resources to encourage vaccination. 

Masking. The FAQ strongly encourages unvaccinated individuals to wear masks and confirms that local districts may opt to make mask use universal with limited exceptions. The FAQ’s clear message is that quarantine disruptions will be greater where masking is not required for unvaccinated individuals. While the implicit message in the FAQ was that school districts may also opt to not require masking, IDPH’s announcement today that they will follow CDC’s recommendations for universal mask-wearing in schools will likely prompt a change to this masking guidance articulated in the FAQ.

Physical Distancing. The FAQ recommends 3-6 feet of distancing and masking when distancing is not feasible.  To accommodate lunch, the FAQ recommends using different spaces for eating and staggering schedules to maximize distance as much as possible. 

The FAQ includes additional guidance on testing and differentiating mitigation based on local factors. 

With IDPH’s announcement that they will now recommend universal mask-wearing in schools regardless of vaccination status and that they will update their online guidance accordingly, we expect to see an update to their most recent FAQ guidance and will certainly be watching for that. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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