Even the unvaccinated may not have to quarantine when coming into contact with COVID this school year; state releases new guidance
photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration
It was a common occurrence in K-12 schools across Kansas last school year: Students required to miss a week or more of school after getting too close to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Now, it is looking more likely that Kansas students — even the unvaccinated — won’t be subject to mandatory quarantine periods nearly as often.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment late last week sent out new guidance that would allow even unvaccinated students and staff members at schools to avoid going into quarantine — if they submit to and pass daily COVID-19 tests that show they don’t have the virus.
The guidance also offers several other options for school districts to adopt, including requiring twice-per-week testing for some high school athletes and the testing of spectators who want to attend one-time events such as games, graduations, concerts or award ceremonies.
A pair of officials with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health disclosed the new guidance as part of a recent interview with the Journal-World. The Lawrence-Douglas County health department received the guidance from KDHE late Friday afternoon, and the local health department has begun circulating it to area school districts.
“KDHE is really working to prioritize in-person learning this school year,” Sonia Jordan, director of informatics for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said as she explained the new options school districts will have. “I think it is a good thing in that it allows kiddos to try to remain in school.”
But local health officials also are stressing there is another, preferred way for students and staff to avoid quarantines: Get vaccinated. The department confirmed what has been expected. It will follow CDC guidance and not require vaccinated individuals to quarantine, as long as they are not showing any symptoms of COVID-19.
“That is a big word we are trying to get out to parents,” George Diepenbrock, a spokesman for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said. “If your child is eligible, that might be an incentive to get your kids vaccinated.”
Currently, students under 12 years of age aren’t eligible for vaccination, which has left many parents wondering if their students will have to quarantine as cases develop in their schools.
The proposed KDHE system basically would allow unvaccinated students to avoid a quarantine requirement if they agree to take a rapid-result COVID test once they have been identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for the virus. School districts last year set up systems to keep reasonable track of which individuals had been in close contact with people who tested positive. Those included assigned seating charts in classrooms, which gave administrators the ability to see who was sitting next to an infected student. Participating in sports that require close contact also was another frequent way that a student would get tagged as a close contact.
It is expected those same systems will be in place this coming school year at most districts. As proposed by KDHE, unvaccinated students could avoid the quarantine program if they take a series of daily tests and continue to show no signs of the virus.
However, school districts won’t be required to adopt the new protocol. They could continue to use last year’s system, which would automatically place unvaccinated students in quarantine, which usually lasted for seven to 10 days, depending on circumstances.
Area school districts just got the information from the local health department days ago, Diepenbrock said. Districts aren’t required to adopt any testing program, but in a letter to school leaders Tuesday, the health department told local districts that they believed “a robust COVID-19 testing strategy will help ensure students, staff and teachers can continue in-person during the 2021-2022 school year.”
Julie Boyle, a spokeswoman with the Lawrence school district, said the district was evaluating the new information and would communicate with parents, students and other stakeholders about decisions related to testing programs.
School districts will have a lot of choices to make. Information on a KDHE website indicates there are a multitude of testing strategies that school districts could adopt. They include:
• A “Test to Know” plan: Depending on how involved a district wanted to get, the plan could include rapid COVID-19, strep and flu tests for any student, teacher or staff member who became symptomatic during the day. Alternatively, the district could choose to offer tests to students, teachers or staff who believe they’ve come in close contact with someone who has COVID. Or, if a district wants to be more limited, it could provide one-time COVID testing within three days of the start of school and before returning from each break. KDHE estimates rapid COVID-19 tests now produce a result in about 20 minutes.
• A “Test to Stay and Learn” plan: This is the testing plan that local health department officials talked the most about. It would involve daily testing of suspected close contacts. Negative tests would allow the student or staff member to stay in school, as long as the health department did not find some other extenuating circumstance. If school districts wanted to be less aggressive, they could require suspected close contacts to quarantine for five days and then begin testing. If the student or staff member tests negative on that sixth day or any day thereafter, they could return to school. School districts also could use the program to test entire classrooms, for example, if there has been an outbreak in a school.
• A “Test to Stay, Play and Participate” plan: This plan would ramp up the testing for students involved in extracurricular activities, where they may be exposed to close contact with students from other districts. The plan would include testing students twice per week if they participate in sports or events that routinely happen indoors. For students who participate in events that primarily happen outdoors, the testing would be once per week.
Districts also could choose for their plans to involve spectators of some events. If a school district is listed in a code-red environment, where case numbers are high in the community, the district could begin offering community testing for spectators within one day of one-time events such as school dances, awards banquets, graduations, concerts and games.
On its website, KDHE said there will be federal funding available to help districts cover the cost of a testing program. The department estimated that $74 million of federal funding already awarded to Kansas will “go directly to school districts to increase COVID-19 testing in pre-K through 12 schools and school-affiliated summer programs and camps.”
An attempt to reach a KDHE spokeswoman on Wednesday wasn’t immediately successful, but in its written guidance, the department said the ideas for testing plans were developed after KDHE worked with an advisory group of superintendents, teachers, staff, school nurses, coaches and others.
Other details of note from the new guidance provided by KDHE include:
• School districts should be working with local health partners to host vaccination clinics;
• KDHE, as already reported, is recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors 2 years and older;
• Schools should strive to maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students while they are in classrooms and other closed settings. But KDHE said a lack of such distance shouldn’t be a reason to end in-person learning. The guidance stated “the inability to implement physical distancing within schools should not be a barrier to keeping all students learning in-person.” However, the KDHE guidance does state that a lack of physical distance makes it important to use other prevention strategies, such as vaccinations, testing and masking.