Just as coronavirus cases are surging after winter break, St. Paul Public Schools is considering no longer identifying and excluding unvaccinated students who come into contact with an infected person at school.
Contact tracing is taxing school health personnel, and extended quarantines are hard on families, said Mary Langworthy, the district’s health and wellness director. She said many students have had to stay home for 10 days on three different occasions.
“Our parents are struggling to get to their jobs, they don’t have daycare options. … That’s a hardship for many of our families to endure,” she told the school board this week.
With the more contagious omicron variant taking over, the St. Paul district had counted 819 new cases in students, staff and visitors through Wednesday this week, compared to 690 all of December. At the same time, the severity of those cases “has gone down quite a bit,” Langworthy said.
She also said transmission at school is fairly low, which means quarantines are forcing many kids to miss school unnecessarily.
“It’s really hard for these kids to gain back what they lost last year,” she said.
Langworthy said she’ll meet with state and Ramsey County public health officials next week to discuss contact tracing and other possible changes in the district’s COVID-19 protocols.
Last school year, Minnesota schools were required to identify and exclude for 14 days any students or employees who spent at least 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person.
For this school year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced its close-contact quarantine length to 10 days for asymptomatic people and said students could stay in school as long as they and the infected person were wearing face masks. (Although St. Paul requires masks, students who eat together can be considered close contacts.)
At the same time, Gov. Tim Walz let his emergency powers expire, empowering school officials to decide which recommended COVID-19 protocols they want to follow. While the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts continued contact tracing and close-contact quarantines, Anoka-Hennepin and many others did not.
This week, the CDC shortened close-contact quarantines again, allowing unvaccinated students to return to school after just five days and a negative test.
The CDC also shortened isolation times for people who test positive. They now can leave home five days after their symptoms first appear, as long as they don’t have a fever.
The Minnesota health and education departments have yet to respond to those changes, and the St. Paul and Minneapolis districts have told families they’re reviewing the new guidance.
Rochester Public Schools in the fall began offering an alternative to quarantine, allowing close contacts to stay in school as long as they test negative five times over the course of the expected quarantine.
Interim superintendent Kent Pekel said he figured COVID-19 wasn’t go away anytime soon, and he didn’t want students to miss out on in-person instruction.
“Like it or not, we are going to have a subset of kids in our schools who are not going to be vaccinated,” he said in an interview. “We still have a responsibility and a desire to serve those students educationally, and that’s where this test-to-stay strategy comes in.”
Studies from Michigan and the U.K. indicated it could be done safely, he said, and Rochester had the same experience. The three-school pilot saved 159 students from missing 602 days of school, according to the district; nine students in the pilot ended up testing positive.
Pekel said he’s expanding test-to-stay to all Rochester schools later this month. This time, he’ll likely require just two negative tests and offer less intensive family support from school staff.
“We’re confident that it’s worth the effort to do because we know that keeping kids out of school has a gigantic educational cost,” he said.
The CDC on Dec. 17 endorsed test-to-stay as an option for schools, letting asymptomatic students stay in school with at least two negative tests over seven days, as long as other mitigation efforts are in place.
NO LIVE TEACHING
Pekel said Rochester students under quarantine — unless their entire class is at home — get no live instruction from teachers.
That’s also the case in St. Paul, where a memorandum of agreement with the teachers union says teachers are not required to attend to in-school and quarantining students at the same time or to record their in-person lessons.
Superintendent Joe Gothard said St. Paul has looked into test-to-stay as an alternative to quarantine, but it takes a lot of tests and administrative work. “If we do it, I want to do it well,” he said.
In Minneapolis, the teachers union calling for the district to establish “QuaranTeams” — groups of teachers at each school who would work with students who are isolating at home because of a positive test or close contact.