Vermont officials relax contact tracing guidelines in schools

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Children board the bus heading to Hinesburg Elementary School on August 25. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont officials are relaxing contact tracing guidelines in schools for the second time this semester.

Last month, the Education Agency said schools that were 80 per cent vaccinated and had a fully vaccine-eligible student body could waive contact tracing entirely.

Now, in accordance with new Education Agency guidelines released Thursday, the state is relaxing its contact tracing guidelines even further.

Previously, the agency recommended school staff identify and notify all close contacts of a student who tested positive for coronavirus. A close contact was defined as “anyone within 6 feet of an infectious person for 15 minutes or more.”

But guidelines released Thursday cut that distance in half, recommending that only students within one meter of a positive test be identified.

“This update is based on findings from other states that find this definition results in low levels of school-based transmission,” the guide says.

To that end, the guidelines recommend schools relax their contact tracing efforts, instead of trying to identify everyone within a 6-foot radius.

In school buses, this means tracers should “only contact-trace a case’s seat neighbor, if known,” according to the new guidelines.

If exhibited in a dining room, students “should be asked to ask who they sat with.”

The new guidelines also change contact tracing procedures during outdoor activities. Last month, the state recommended that schools “should notify families of potential exposure during recess/outdoor time.” Students should be tested several days after a potential contact, but should not be quarantined unless a “clear close contact has been identified”.

Yesterday’s advice cuts this section off entirely.

“Schools should not contact-trace close contacts of cases that occurred outdoors,” the new guidelines state. “Schools should no longer send out low-risk exposure letters.”

About two months into the school year, some school officials have expressed frustration that the state has not provided adequate support for contact tracing in schools. The relaxation of the instructions also divides health professionals.

The Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the new guidelines Thursday, saying “other states using similar contact tracing guidelines have not seen an increase in school transmission.”

But Anne Sosin, a policy scholar at Dartmouth College and a public health researcher who has criticized the state’s handling of the Delta variant, gave the new recommendations a mixed review.

Changing the close contact metric from 6 feet to 3 feet is “reasonable,” she said, as is reducing outdoor contact tracing.

But “there’s no reason to contact buses and cafeterias differently than we do in other settings,” she said, noting that these are situations where students often remove masks.

Ted Fisher, spokesman for the Education Agency, said the new recommendations were released after consultations with school and medical officials. The guidelines “didn’t change anything in terms of risk,” he said.

“We’re not talking about completely losing contact tracing,” Fisher said. “We just want to make it as efficient as possible.”

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Tags: contact tracing, coronavirus, coronavirus contact tracing, coronavirus education, coronavirus schools, COVID-19, education, Vermont schools

Pierre D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Before moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

E-mail: [email protected]

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