SALT LAKE CITY — School quarantine periods could be reduced from 14 to seven days if students and staff meet the criteria of a newly approved state protocol.
A letter sent to Utah schools by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson on Thursday says a student, teacher or staff member may return to school if they meet all of the following:
- The school verifies that the student, teacher or staff member who was exposed and the person who tested positive were both properly wearing face masks as outlined in an earlier state public health order.
- The person has a negative nasal swab COVID-19 test result. The test result must be from at least seven days after the last exposure to the person who tested positive, and
- The person does not have symptoms of COVID-19.
The new guidelines, which apply only to schools, make clear if the person does not meet all three criteria or elects not to get tested, they should quarantine at home for 14 days from the last day of exposure.
The “low-risk test and return” protocol does not apply to students, teachers, staff or school settings that are exempt from the state public health order on masks in schools, the letter states.
The state’s COVID-19 School Manual will be updated, but the changes take effect immediately.
Amendments to the quarantine guidelines are welcome news to schools and families, some of whom have experienced being quarantined 14 days due to COVID-19 exposure, coming off quarantine only to be exposed again and entering another 14-day quarantine period.
Cassidy Ratliff of Riverton said her children have experienced back-to-back quarantines.
She and her son contracted COVID-19 prior to the start of the school year, which meant all three of her children were quarantined for 14 days.
Upon her daughter’s return to Riverton High School, where she is on drill team, she was informed she had to quarantine again because a drill team member had tested positive.
“The idea she had to quarantine for 28 days is out of control because she was not exposed to the girl who is on the team that had it. She was in quarantine,” Ratliff told members of the Jordan School Board last month.
Perhaps a greater risk has been that “kids are concealing being sick because the consequences are too great,” she said.
Her son got pulled out of a football game after being informed he had to quarantine, but the family later learned the notification was sent to them in error.
“This was an emotional roller coaster for these kids,” she said Friday.
Distance learning works for some but not all of her children, so learning from home presents challenges for them and their teachers. Some teachers have been helpful and attentive while others have been “not great,” Ratliff said.
The updated protocol “is definitely a step in the right direction. I’m glad that they are listening. I’m glad that they’re hearing. I feel for the teachers. I hope that this helps the teachers because kids should be back in the classroom and it should help lessen the (teachers’) workload, right?” Ratliff said.
In many school districts, hundreds of students and staff have been quarantined, which has pressed district human resources departments to locate substitute teachers and created more work for teachers serving quarantined students on top of their in-person teaching responsibilities.
Bryce Dunford, president of the Jordan School Board, said the quarantine protocol was “the biggest curveball that none of us saw coming in the summer. ... It has become the biggest challenge we are facing.”
Teachers are frustrated because they teach most students in person and then must also prepare instructional material for quarantined students, he said.
“Copper Hills High School, for example, has 23 active cases, but 345 students in quarantine. That is putting a major strain on the faculty. Parents are frustrated when their child has to stay home with no symptoms for 14 days,” he said.
Dunford and other school board presidents have made frequent calls to the governor’s office and health departments urging them re-evaluate the protocol.
Dickson’s letter to schools statewide notes that at the request of district superintendents and charter school directors, a school medical advisory group met and recommended adjustments to the 14-day quarantine protocol.
The Utah Department of Health, under the direction of Gov. Gary Herbert, approved the “low-risk test and return” guidance.
“The medical experts on the advisory group indicate that this aligns with the best medical practice of adjusting the intensity of intervention based on risk and consequences of overprescribing an intervention,” the letter states.
This is for individual exposures, and does not pertain to the threshold recommendations for classroom or school virtual learning
The letter says rapid COVID-19 tests are being distributed and local health departments will have more information about when and where the tests can be accessed. The letter specifically mentions the Abbott BinaxNOW platform, which can read results of samples collected from nasal swabs within 15 minutes.