Understanding the New CDC COVID-19 Childcare Guidelines

child and caretaker playing on the ground with blocks

FatCamera / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Updated guidance from the CDC aims to help childcare program providers prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • The guidelines include a recommendation for mask wearing for everyone 2 years of age and older.
  • Providers are also encouraged to take steps to improve ventilation and hygiene, and keep children in separate "cohorts" as much as possible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidance for childcare programs during the pandemic, replacing the advisory documents that were published in the summer of 2020.

The new guidelines emphasize the importance of mask-wearing for everyone 2 years of age and older, plus air ventilation and sanitizing, among other measures. It’s aimed at programs that care for kids before they start kindergarten, such as Head Start programs, home-based family child care programs, and child care centers.  

The guidance outlines "strategies that child care programs can use to maintain healthy environments and operations, lower the risk of COVID-19 spread in their programs, prepare for when someone is sick with COVID-19, and support coping and resilience." 


The guidelines state that "everyone 2 years and older should wear a mask covering their mouth and nose when around people who do not live in their household, except when eating or sleeping."

They also stress that a mask isn’t a substitute for physical distancing, and that wearing a mask is especially important indoors and when physical distancing is difficult to implement or maintain while providing care to young children. Also, the CDC doesn’t recommend face shields or goggles as a substitute for masks.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge for parents and childcare providers, who know how much of a struggle it can be to get toddlers to wear face coverings. But it’s worth the effort, says Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of social distancing brand Give Space

Carol Winner, MPH

Masks keep germy fingers away from noses and also protect from person-to-person exposure—not only between children and their classmates, but also between them and their providers.

— Carol Winner, MPH

"Every provider and parent recognizes that kids are walking petri dishes," Winner says. "Childhood illness can work its nasty way through the classroom and into their homes. Masks keep germy fingers away from noses and also protect from person-to-person exposure—not only between children and their classmates. but also between them and their providers."

And while healthy children are believed to be at a lower risk of dying from COVID-19, children with compromising health conditions, and the adult providers, are at a greater risk.

"We know that the children can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus and simple mask wearing can reduce the risk of exposure significantly and protect those at risk of severe mortality or even death," Winner says. 

And if a child is stressed by having to constantly wear a mask, Winner suggests creating a cordoned-off "social distancing area" to allow them to wash their hands and remove their mask for a moment. 


The guidance "also highlights strategies such as cohorting, where groups of children are kept together with the same peers and staff to reduce the risk of spread throughout the program," said Rochelle P. Walensky. MD, MPH, the director of the CDC.

Child care providers are encouraged to place children and staff into distinct groups that stay together for an entire day, and keep them in separate areas, such as a classroom or outdoor area, weather permitting.

If possible, the groups should include the same kids each day and the same child care providers should remain within the same groups of kids each day. To make this easier, providers might have to change or stop daily group activities that might increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. 

When it comes to nap time, the guidelines suggest spacing out nap-time mats or cribs as much as possible, and placing infants and children head to toe to further reduce the potential for viral spread. 

The guidance also discourages the sharing of objects between children, particularly those that are difficult to clean or disinfect, like stuffed animals, electronics, and puzzles. It advises keeping each child’s belongings separated from others’ and in individually labeled containers or areas. 


To increase air ventilation, open doors and windows when it’s safe to do so, says the CDC. If possible, it’s best to open multiple windows and doors to allow more fresh air to move inside. 

If opening windows or doors is unsafe, other ways to reduce the amount of virus particles in the air are air filtration and exhaust fans. Another recommendation is running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for two hours before and after the center or home is occupied.

Routine Cleaning 

The updated guidelines offer detailed tips for maintaining a healthy environment, including cleaning and sanitizing toys; washing, rinsing, and sanitizing surfaces that come in contact with food (i.e., tables where children eat); and keeping each child’s bedding (sheets, pillows, blankets, sleeping bags) separate. 

It is a lot of cleaning, but at this stage in the pandemic, providers are likely accustomed to taking these extra hygiene precautions. 

Carol Winner, MPH

Enhanced cleaning practices, social distancing and mask-wearing is temporary, as once adults and children are vaccinated, we can return to a new normal.

— Carol Winner, MPH

"Providers are all too familiar with the risks associated with bacteria and viruses that live for hours or days on toys and room surfaces," Winner says. "Regular cleaning and mask wearing is the winning combo for protecting children as this allows our children to be children, sharing playtime safely with their mates and favorite toys."

Don't worry—it's not likely that your child will get COVID-19 from sharing Legos. But, as Winner explains, mask wearing protects against the risk of physical interaction and strict cleaning practices, including regular hand washing, "protect against a whole host of infection and disease."


While vaccination was not among the key strategies the agency laid out, it's described as "an important tool" to help stop the pandemic. At the White House briefing presenting the guidelines, Walensky said, "I strongly encourage America's childcare workers to get vaccinated."

Last week, the US Department of Health and Human Services directed COVID-19 vaccine providers to make vaccine doses available to education and childcare workers.

What This Means For You

If your kids go to a childcare provider, the new guidelines might seem daunting at first. Take your time to digest them, and ask your childcare provider to clarify anything you're not sure about.

Remember, it's all part of a collective effort to curb the spread of COVID-19—and it won't last forever!

But the guidance notes that even after childcare providers and staff are vaccinated, "there will be a need to continue prevention measures for the foreseeable future, including wearing masks, physical distancing and other important prevention strategies outlined in this guidance document."

"Enhanced cleaning practices, social distancing and mask-wearing is temporary, as once adults and children are vaccinated, we can return to a new normal," says Winner. "However, until we accomplish our vaccination goals, we must suffer through to protect our families." 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for operating child care programs during COVID-19.

  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Secretarial directive for prioritization of COVID-19 vaccines and administration for certain educational and child care workers.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.