New school contact tracing rules will put fewer students in quarantine

  • File: Diana Bolton ©️ Seven days

The Vermont Agency of Education released updated contact tracing guidelines for schools on Thursday that aim to limit the number of students who must be quarantined after someone becomes infected with COVID-19 in school.

The recommendations — which were made with input from pediatricians, infectious disease specialists, the Vermont State School Nurses Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association — aim to keep students safely in school as much as possible and to make the contact tracing process less cumbersome. The new guidelines are for schools that require universal masking.
The main difference is a change in the definition of a close contact. Anyone who has been within one meter of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more in a 24-hour period is considered a close contact. If it is not “reasonably possible” to determine close contact this way, schools can use the four-hour rule, which would apply to those who were in the same class or module as a infectious person for at least four hours.

In previous school boards, a close contact was someone who was within six feet or less of an infectious person for 15 minutes or more.

School bus contact tracing guidelines have also changed. Previously, any student within six feet of an infectious person on a school bus was considered a close contact. If no seating information was available for the school bus, all students traveling on the bus would be considered close contacts.

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Now only the seat neighbor of an infectious person is considered a close contact.

The guidance comes as Vermont begins rolling out its “Test to Stay” program. Rather than quarantining, the program allows students who are close contacts to take a rapid antigen test before going to class up to seven days after the last known exposure to the virus.

Massachusetts also uses the three-foot rule and has eliminated contact tracing on buses. Close contacts in that state’s Test to Stay program have had a very low positivity rate, according to the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports the new guidelines.

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Transmission of COVID-19 “occurs at a lower rate in school settings compared to settings outside the school environment,” the group wrote in a statement released Thursday. “Paediatricians agree with aligning Vermont’s definition of close contact with that of [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to more accurately identify students at highest risk of infection from school exposure while minimizing quarantines for low-risk, asymptomatic students.

Pediatricians say they continue to recommend universal masking in schools — regardless of student vaccination status or school vaccination rates — until those 12 and under have been vaccinated and local data show significantly lower COVID-19 transmission rates.

The Vermont Education Agency and Department of Health guidelines currently state that the school should require indoor universal masking for all students and staff through November 1. After that, the agencies say those eligible for vaccination don’t need to wear masks once the school vaccination rate among college students is 80 percent or higher.

Earlier this month, Education Secretary Dan French made it clear that the state’s school contact tracing process would need to be changed in order to successfully implement the test to stay.

“Contact tracing doesn’t necessarily help us focus on cases,” French said in an Oct. 8 interview with Seven days. “From a public health perspective, this captures a lot of asymptomatic children and [don’t] have COVID. And on the education side, it keeps them from going to school while we’re doing that. And it’s extremely laborious.”

School administrators have expressed frustration with the tedious contact tracing efforts needed this year amid rising COVID-19 cases. In the first eight weeks of classes, there were 978 cases of students and staff infected with COVID-19 at the school, according to health department data from October 18. By comparison, there were 1,402 cases in the entire 2020-21 school year.

Another update to the original contact tracing guidelines, made last month,
allows schools with students 12 and older to waive contact tracing if 80% are fully vaccinated.

Some schools, however, have decided to err on the side of caution. Middlebury Union High School had a cluster of 10 cases of COVID-19 this week, likely resulting from a gathering outside the school, according to Kelly Landwehr, the school’s head nurse and COVID-19 coordinator. of the Addison Central School District.

Although the vaccination rate for high school students is around 82%, Landwehr said she always informs close contacts, regardless of their vaccination status.

“We think it’s really important to continue with contact tracing so that we can identify who is at risk and give them that information and give them the opportunity to get tested and monitor for symptoms, and to do what’s right. good for them and their families,” Landwehr said.

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