About 400 Lawrence students in quarantine through close contact protocols

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

As the Lawrence school district sees its second full week of class come to a close, it has already been dealing with many students missing school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As of Friday morning, the school district has reported 48 cases among students. The majority of those cases are in elementary school buildings, which serve students who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

But those cases are affecting many more people than just the students who have contracted the virus. Scores of students throughout the district have been asked to quarantine by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health after the school district found them to have been in close contact with those reported cases.

Sonia Jordan, the health department’s director of informatics, said the department on Wednesday estimated about 400 Lawrence students were in quarantine for that reason. Based on the district’s enrollment numbers from the 2020-21 school year, 400 students would be roughly 4% of the students who attend brick and mortar schools in the district. However, Jordan said the number is hard to track and is not definitive.

The situation highlights just how big of a challenge the Delta variant of the virus has become for schools, especially because Kansas schools are prohibited from using remote learning this school year, as the Journal-World previously reported.

Part of the reason so many students are in quarantine is that younger students — those in second grade and below — are more likely to be asked to quarantine than older students. That’s because the health department has provided a guideline to the school district to consider naming all students in a class as close contacts if they are second grade or younger.

Generally, the district’s policy identifies a close contact as anyone who is not fully vaccinated who is within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 10 minutes, regardless of whether they were wearing a mask. An individual who is vaccinated under the same circumstances would not be required to quarantine if they were not showing symptoms.

Jordan said the guideline for the younger students was not a requirement, but that it was recommended because it is much more difficult to determine the general close contact policy for young children. Jordan said that from her experience with her own kids, two of whom are elementary-school age, she knows younger children don’t always have a full understanding of boundaries.

“They are just more mobile throughout a class,” Jordan said. “Thinking about how that age interacts with each other, how they learn and how they move throughout an inside space, that was the consideration we were giving.”

Local mother Erin Lawrence said her daughter, a second grade student at Schwegler Elementary School, was asked to quarantine after another child in her class tested positive. Lawrence said the situation was unfortunate, because her daughter was attending in-person public school for the first time this year and was asked to quarantine just a week into the new setting.

“She had one full week of school and we got the notification she had a close contact with a classmate,” Lawrence said, noting that her daughter was asked to stay home between Aug. 31 and Sept. 10. “That’s a long time for kids to be out of school.”

Additionally, learning from home this year is more difficult for students, because remote learning is generally prohibited by a new state law. Last year, students who were in quarantine were often able to participate in class through online video conferencing.

Lawrence said her daughter was given a homework packet to work on at home during quarantine, which does not include any direct instruction from a teacher. She said she also knows the students will all need to be caught up on those lessons, meaning they will be behind in their schoolwork.

Lawrence said she wonders if the district will need to adapt its current operation to help make sure more students stay in school, such as testing students deemed to be close contacts regularly to see if they can return to school rather than quarantine. She said otherwise, an elementary student could be asked to quarantine several times during the school year without ever testing positive for the virus.

“It makes me concerned that this may just keep happening,” she said. “If we aren’t testing kids before they come back, how do we know we aren’t sending that same strain back into the classroom that sent them all home 10 days ago?”

The school district may be looking into new options. As the Journal-World previously reported, a “class cohort” system could be employed to help mitigate students’ interactions with the larger building population. District spokeswoman Julie Boyle told the Journal-World then that the district was reviewing the possibility of a class cohort system.

“Our goal is to keep students and staff safe and in school,” Boyle said.

Meanwhile, Lawrence said she’s also looking into new options for her daughter. She said she’s working to move her daughter back into home learning through the district’s Lawrence Virtual School, which she used last year.

“It’s unfortunate because she was really excited about being in school and we were ready to embrace this shift in her learning,” Lawrence said. “There’s just no guarantee on what this semester will look like for us.”

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