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What does quarantine mean for schools, teachers, students?

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The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, created by the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), is meant to help guide school district decision-making during the pandemic, including around quarantines. As the delta variant of COVID-19 continues the pandemic spread, districts across North Carolina have to navigate the challenges of quarantine while balancing them with the necessity of education.

Who gets quarantined?

The current toolkit guidance varies depending on whether a student or staff member has been diagnosed with COVID-19 versus exposed.

If someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, the toolkit advises that they stay home “until they meet the criteria for return to school.” That criteria includes returning after 10 days if they don’t have symptoms or if they have another test within one or two days that shows them to be negative.

If an individual is exposed to someone with COVID-19, the toolkit says they should quarantine if they are not fully vaccinated. “Exposure,” in this case, is defined as “close contact,” which is “within 6 feet of another person for 15 minutes or longer cumulatively, within a 24 hour period.”

Exposure requires a quarantine period of 14 days, with some exceptions.

Additionally, per CDC guidelines, the toolkit says that students within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student don’t have to quarantine if they were using masks correctly and if “other K-12 school prevention strategies” have been implemented in the school. Those are things such as physical distancing and increased ventilation.

Other things to know:

If someone is fully vaccinated and has no symptoms, they don’t have to quarantine if they were exposed to someone with COVID-19. The toolkit recommends they test “3-5 days after exposure and wear a mask around others until receiving a negative test result.”

If someone has tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 3 months, recovered, and doesn’t have symptoms, they don’t have to quarantine after an exposure.

The toolkit includes different pieces of advice, scenarios, and instructions. For a full picture, check it out, as well as an accompanying document that discusses contact tracing.

Is everyone doing this?

The toolkit lays out what districts should do when it comes to quarantine and contact tracing, but a few districts have decided to try something different.

According to the Charlotte Observer, earlier this month, Union County Public Schools voted to stop quarantining students who didn’t have a positive test or weren’t showing symptoms. The district has a mask-optional policy.

DHHS threatened legal action unless the district changed course. Last week, the school board relented, according to the Charlotte Observer, and decided to shorten the quarantine period for exposed students from 14 days to 10 days, with the option to shorten that to seven days if the person tests negative during the quarantine. Those new guidelines are mostly in line with those in the toolkit, which also has 10-day and 7-day quarantine options for students with no symptoms or who test negative:

Following on the heels of Union County, the Lincoln County Board of Education also voted to not quarantine students who have exposure to COVID-19 but don’t show symptoms or test positive. They reversed that decision Sept. 24.

Earlier this month, the Cabarrus County Board of Education tried to change how it did contact tracing, which is a process for monitoring the spread of COVID-19 cases. They voted to only do so if two positive cases came from “a single classroom, bus, or athletic team,” according to this WBTV article. That never actually happened — DHHS told the board it had to trace every positive case.

In their September board meeting and subsequently in a board meeting Monday, Oct. 4, the Harnett County Board of Education voted to make face masks optional starting Oct. 5 and shorten the quarantine period to seven days for individuals who have been exposed but have not tested positive for COVID-19. Per the toolkit, seven days is the minimum quarantine period for students with no symptoms or who test negative.

Meanwhile, according to ABC News, school districts in states including Utah and Massachusetts have been trying out a new plan for dealing with exposed students. It’s called “test-to-stay” and it lets a student who has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 stay in school if they take a rapid test every day for seven days — and test negative — in addition to some other requirements, including wearing a mask.

Despite efforts, disruptions to schools due to the COVID-19 remain, raising questions about the impact of those disruptions on students and teachers.

The perfect storm

Mariah Morris, K-5 literacy facilitator in Orange County Schools and 2019-20 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, called what’s happening now a perfect storm.

Mariah Morris, the 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Liz Bell/EducationNC

She said there are tons of teacher vacancies across the state for a variety of reasons, including the stress of being in the classroom during a pandemic that has now spanned three school years.

Data from the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association backs Morris up. According to data submitted to the organization by 110 of the state’s 115 school districts as of Sept. 8, there are more than 2,600 teacher vacancies across the state, almost 1,300 bus driver positions, and more than 280 nursing, counseling, or psychologist positions open. In addition, districts are reporting to the organization that there aren’t a lot of applicants for these positions.

So, when teachers are quarantined, there are already fewer personnel than normal who can support the vacant classroom, Morris said. Meanwhile, it’s hard to find substitute teachers willing to put “their health and safety at risk,” she said.

“All of that is contributing to the stress that a building feels when a teacher is not able to teach in person,” Morris said.

Patrick Miller, superintendent of Greene County Schools and past president of the N.C. School Superintendents’ Association (NCSSA), said his district is experiencing exactly what Morris is talking about. It’s so bad, he said, that his district made the decision recently to raise the daily pay rate for substitutes.

“It’s difficult because we’re, much like everybody else, struggling to find substitutes and folks to fill those roles,” he said.

Adding students in quarantine adds another level of complexity.

Morris said that when a student is quarantined, already-stressed teachers then have to deal with students in a classroom, students in remote learning, possibly cover for teachers who are out in other classrooms, and handle any other school responsibilities they might have. Morris said a lot of teachers are having to go without a planning period just to get everything done.

While Morris said she didn’t have any empirical data on how quarantines are affecting student learning, she feels that her specialty — K-5 literacy — doesn’t work as well when a student and teacher are interacting online rather than in person.

How are districts teaching students in quarantine?

Morris said that many districts are utilizing online learning to teach kids while they’re quarantined. That’s true of Greene County as well.

In an email, Miller said that if an individual student is quarantined, the teacher maintains communication with the student and makes lessons available online. If an entire class is quarantined, teachers do 10-30 minutes of live or recorded lessons, “adhering to their daily schedule as much as possible,” Miller wrote. He said it is expected that the teachers will have follow-up communication with their class via Zoom, email, or text.

If a student doesn’t have a device for online learning, they’ll be given one to use while quarantined. If a student doesn’t have internet access at home, the school tries to download the material the student would need on the student’s device before they go home.

Michael Maher, executive director of the Office of Learning Recovery & Acceleration at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), said DPI is in the process of collecting remote learning plans being submitted by districts. Senate bill 654, passed this session and signed into law on Aug. 30, requires that districts submit such plans, which must provide “a detailed framework for delivering quality remote instruction to students for the upcoming school year.”

Michael Maher, right, talking with EdNC’s Rupen Fofaria, is the executive director of the Office of Learning Recovery & Acceleration at the Department of Public Instruction. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

Maher said after DPI and his office analyzes them, a report will be published in March that will include recommendations on how remote instruction should happen in the future. His office is also working to understand what impact quarantines have on student learning.

‘That sense of despair’

“I think that it is a difficult time to be an educator right now, and I think educators are looking for that moment of recognition from the state for what they have done and what they continue to do,” Morris said.

Given the pandemic and the number of teacher vacancies reported, Morris said it is time for some “deep shifts” in how the state thinks about, treats, and pays educators.

“I will sing this all day long. I think it comes down to respecting and compensating the human capital that is in our building,” she said. “When we’re not compensating them and then we’re disrespecting them, there is that sense of despair.”

Editor’s note: Mariah Morris serves on the Strategic Council and Patrick Miller serves on the Board of Directors for EducationNC.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.