St. Paul public schools can drop COVID contact tracing and quarantine rule
As coronavirus cases spike 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 straining school health care staff and prolonged quarantines are hard on families, said Mary Langworthy, district health and wellness director. She said many students had to stay home for 10 days on three occasions.
“Our parents struggle to get to work, they don’t have daycare options. … It’s an ordeal that a lot of our families have to go through,” she told the school board this week.
With the more contagious omicron variant taking over, St. Paul District had counted 819 new cases among students, staff and visitors through Wednesday this week, compared to 690 all of December. At the same time, the severity of these cases “has decreased significantly,” Langworthy said.
She also said transmission at school was quite low, meaning quarantines are causing many children to miss school unnecessarily.
“It’s really hard for these kids to get back what they lost last year,” she says.
Langworthy said she will meet with state and Ramsey County public health officials next week to discuss contact tracing and other possible changes to the district’s COVID-19 protocols.
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Last year, schools in Minnesota were required to identify and suspend for 14 days any student or employee who spent at least 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person.
For this school year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reduced the length of the close contact quarantine to 10 days for asymptomatic people and said students can stay in school as long as they and the person infected wore face masks. (Although St. Paul requires masks, students who eat together can be considered close contact.)
At the same time, Governor Tim Walz let his emergency powers expire, allowing school officials to decide which recommended COVID-19 protocols they want to follow. While school districts in St. Paul and Minneapolis continued contact tracing and quarantines of close contacts, Anoka-Hennepin and many others did not.
This week, the CDC again shortened close contact quarantines, allowing unvaccinated students to return to school after just five days and testing negative.
The CDC has also shortened isolation times for people who test positive. They can now leave their homes five days after their first symptoms appear, as long as they do not have a fever.
Minnesota’s health and education departments have yet to respond to those changes, and the districts of St. Paul and Minneapolis have told families they are reviewing the new guidelines.
Unlike St. Paul, the Minneapolis District is not planning to halt contact tracing, a spokeswoman said.
TEST TO STAY
In the fall, Rochester Public Schools began offering an alternative to quarantine, allowing close contacts to stay in school as long as they test negative five times during the scheduled quarantine.
Acting Superintendent Kent Pekel said he believes COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and he doesn’t want students to miss in-person instruction.
“Like it or not, we’re going to have a subset of kids in our schools who aren’t being vaccinated,” he said in an interview. “We still have a responsibility and a desire to serve these students educationally, and that’s where this test-to-stay strategy comes in.”
Studies from Michigan and the UK indicated it could be done safely, he said, and Rochester had the same experience. The three-school pilot project saved 159 students from missing 602 days of school, according to the district; nine students from the pilot project ended up testing positive.
Pekel said he is expanding the test to stay at all Rochester schools later this month. This time he will probably only need two negative tests and offer less intensive family support from school staff.
“We are convinced that it is worth it, because we know that keeping children out of school has a gigantic educational cost,” he said.
On Dec. 17, the CDC approved testing to stay as an option for schools, allowing asymptomatic students to remain 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 quarantined Rochester students — unless their entire class is at home — receive no live instruction from teachers.
This is also the case in St. Paul, where a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union stipulates that teachers are not required to care for students in school and in quarantine at the same time or to register their lessons in person.
Superintendent Joe Gothard said St. Paul had considered testing to stay as an alternative to quarantine, but it takes a lot of testing and paperwork. “If we do it, I want to do it well,” he said.
In Minneapolis, the teachers’ union called on the district to create “QuaranTeams” — groups of teachers in each school who would work with students isolated at home due to a positive test or close contact.