How would schools respond to a positive case of COVID-19 in the classroom?

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A parade of cars led by school buses carried teachers and staff from Orchard School in South Burlington to the doorsteps of students on June 11, 2020. Burlington Free Press

Since the Agency of Education released guidance to schools for reopening, some educators, parents and other stakeholders have found the guidance lacking specifics as they begin preparing for reopening in the fall. 

One area that has the community wanting more information is how schools will address a positive case of COVID-19 within their population.

The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, a teacher’s union which has publicly asked for more specifics and called for a statewide reopening commission, criticized the governor for “scuttling” the commission effort.

VT-NEA’s president, Don Tinney, said it was a ” mistake that will make it harder for Vermont schools to safely reopen to in-person instruction.”

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The Agency of Education convened a Reopening Schools Task Force made up of representatives in education, health, transportation, mental health and others, which helped create the guidelines that came out a month ago — June 17. 

Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French has said school districts and supervisory unions have the flexibility to determine how to implement guidelines and to make specific plans at the district level.

When students would quarantine

Questions have been asked about when students would need to quarantine, particularly if a positive case were found in their classroom.

The state guidelines suggest a person, including a student, self-quarantine if they are in “close contact” with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“Close contact means being within six feet, for a long time, of someone who is diagnosed with COVID-19 during their infectious period, which starts two days before any symptoms began, or for people who didn’t have symptoms, two days before they got tested, and continues until they are recovered,” the Department of Health’s website says. “Close contact does not mean: being more than six feet away in the same indoor environment for a long period of time, walking by, or briefly being in the same room.”

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Dr. Breena Holmes, director of the Maternal and Child Health Division with the Health Department wrote in an email response, ” A ‘long period of time’ is hard to define because it depends on whether the person was sick at the time and what type of interaction you had with that person.”

Close contacts would quarantine for 14 days or 7 days from last contact with individual and a negative COVID-19 test.

At the time of publication, the Health Department had not answered whether a classroom of individuals would constitute “close contact” for “a long period of time.”‘ For instance, if a teacher or student in a class were to test positive, would the entire classroom need to self-quarantine at home? 

Testing students for the virus

State officials have talked about the need to ramp up testing as students return to school. Some in the community have asked if testing students would occur at a school nurse’s office.

The current school guidelines don’t address testing, however, Holmes said school-based testing is not in the plan. For community outbreaks, including schools, the health department would consider creating a pop-up site for testing.

“In general, close contacts will be offered local options for testing (through medical providers, pharmacies and hospital sites depending on the area),” Holmes wrote in an email. “Parents are always able to accompany children for medical procedures including COVID-19 testing.”

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Holmes said all medically ordered COVID-19 tests are covered by insurance.

“If a person does not have insurance, Health (Department) will assist in getting coverage and finding a medical home for testing since health access is so important in public health,” Holmes wrote.

Who decides if school closes?

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If a positive case of COVID-19 were found in a school population, both the Agency of Education and the Department of Health would get involved to assist the school. 

The Health Department would initiate contact tracing to determine who came in close contact with the afflicted individual at the time they were infectious. 

Contact tracers would communicate with those close contacts (families) to discuss the situation and advise them on quarantine procedures. 

The health department would give guidance on disinfecting and sanitation of affected areas. Certain spaces could be closed for cleaning while the school at-large remain open. 

Holmes said the health department has four public health nurses available every day for calls from school leadership, childcare and camps.

“Agency of Education and Health Department leadership are working on a decision-making matrix around school closure that will be based on data and epidemiology,” she said.

Health checks on the bus

Daily health checks at school entrances were described in detail in the school guidelines. However, health checks will also be required “prior to boarding the bus,” the guidelines state.

A bus monitor, rather than the bus driver, would conduct these checks. Other than the monitor wearing masks, eye protection and gloves, the guidelines do not provide much more detail. 

Would the health checks take place off the bus at the bus stop? If so, how would it occur during extreme weather?

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“Each Local Education Agency will work on implementing the guidance including how to conduct health screenings during colder months and inclement weather,” Holmes said.

More details to come

Ted Fisher, director of communication for the Agency of Education, said many of these questions dealt with decision-making issues around changing COVID-19 conditions. 

“We will be working closely with the Department of Health to publish decision-making guidelines to bring clarity to these complex issues,” Fisher wrote in an email. “I expect these guidelines will be published before the end of July.”

“Much of the critical work to safely reopening school must be done at the local level, and AOE is working closely with our partners at VDH and stakeholders to provide that support,” Fisher wrote. “We are continuing to support local planning for reopening schools by answering questions and providing clarification to existing guidance as needed.”

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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