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Quarantining students is an educational nightmare. Is it still worth it?

CANTON, NY (NCPR) - School was supposed to be closer to normal this year. Most districts scrapped online learning, many brought kids back into the classroom five days a week. But the high rate of unvaccinated people in the North Country and the surge of new cases of the more contagious Delta variant leading to thousands of quarantined students across the North Country.

Chris Mary is a third-grade teacher at Salmon River Elementary School, on the St. Lawrence River. Six weeks into the school year, she has never had all 14 of her students in class at the same time. But she sort of considers herself lucky.

“Knock on wood, I don’t even want to say it. The class across the hall, half the class was quarantined for 10 days. My class it’s been two or three at a time."

She says it’s like being caught in a never-ending game of catch-up.

No virtual option, kids fall further behind

Mary says as soon as she gets back students, she loses another few to quarantine. Each time, she has to whip together a packet of worksheets to send home with the quarantined kids. That's their replacement for school.

"I try to send them things that they can do on their own, because parents are busy too, and we're all just trying to get through a global pandemic. But definitely, they need some [additional] instruction when they get back.”

Salmon River, like the vast majority of school districts across the country, got rid of their online instruction option this fall, prioritizing in-person, five days a week school.

But that means that quarantined students are left with little to no instruction for over a week, which is disastrous for learning, says Jennifer Gaffney, the superintendent of Sackets Harbor Central School in Jefferson County.

She says a 10-day quarantine is a HUGE educational setback. Missed tests. Little or no instruction time. No extra help from teachers. And there are some students who have already gone through two or three quarantines.

Gaffney says districts have to find a way to keep those kids learning.

“All students have the right to a free and appropriate public education, and just because a kid is quarantined does not mean their education stops."

But keeping up with quarantines has been difficult. Schools are finding there are a lot more positive and quarantined kids than they were expecting, due to the Delta variant and high transmission across the North Country. Gaffney says Sackets Harbor started the year with one staff member dedicated to quarantined students. They quickly learned it wouldn't be enough.

"Week two, we had a couple of cases, which led to a number of quarantines, and we quickly learned that what we had in place was not going to meet the demands!”

They’ve since hired several more virtual ‘educational advisors’ to work with students. Other schools are considering similar changes. Canton Central School just created a new position, called the Extended Absence Liaison.

How the North Country quarantines

Salmon River and Sackets Harbor aren't outliers. This fall, across the country, schools have had to quarantine hundreds of thousands of kids, because they may have caught COVID-19 from a positive classmate. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of missed school days.

The way quarantines work here, in New York, is through an equation lifted straight from CDC guidance. Faith Lusdik is a public health planner for Jefferson County. She says they're "looking for those children who are close contacts of the person who is infected,” which means within 3 to 6 feet of an infected person, for over 15 minutes in a 24 hour period.

There is an exception, suggested by the CDC, for kids wearing masks. In theory, this is great for New York, which is one of only ten states in the country with a mask requirement.

But kids are still going home because health departments are erring on the side of caution. Lusdik says "children may be exempt if they are wearing their face covering correctly and consistently for the entire time of their exposure" but that often, young children aren’t able to wear their face coverings correctly and consistently.

Students get within three feet of each other. They play contact sports. They don’t wear masks in the cafeteria. So one positive kid can trigger a dozen quarantines.

'They go home, come back, and then they're home again'

Melanie Cunningham knows the quarantine dance well. She's a school nurse at Salmon River Elementary School, and often it feels like she's become a full-time contact tracer.

“Did that child ride the bus? Did that child go to the cafeteria? Did the child have a special, like gym?”

When one of her students tests positive for COVID-19, she has to figure out who that child was in close contact with. To determine that, she spends her days checking class seating charts and watching video footage, "...sometimes we have to use cameras. You know, in the cafeteria, we like to make sure and double-check everything." She’s literally counted the minutes a kid was eating next to another.

Cunningham says she's already had to send home some students several times this year, even though they themselves have never tested positive. Those kids miss 10, or 20, or 30 days of school.

Is it worth it?

It sort of begs these questions, which I asked Cunningham: are schools superspreader places? Are you seeing whole classes getting infected from one positive child?

Her answer was an emphatic no. She said the preventative measures being taken: the masking, the distancing, the better ventilation, the frequent handwashing, are all keeping in-school transmission way down. That's what she's experienced, and she guessed that spread was coming "...from the community. I do not have analysis or anything like that, but I would say it’s more from the community."

Cunningham's instincts are pretty on point. Across the country, school districts have been and are working with researchers to study the effectiveness of quarantines, says Dennis Roche, the president of Burbio, a school data service that’s been tracking school closures and quarantine policies during the pandemic.

"We're starting to see a lot of districts measure what these quarantine situations look like when they're done. Some of them have found that well over 90% of the students who were quarantined did not end up having COVID-19."

A county in Maryland found that only 2% of their quarantined students have tested positive. An in-school transmission study conducted in Wood County, Wisconsin found that just 3.7% of COVID-19 cases in their K-12 schoolswere linked to in-school transmission.

These case studies join others in the US and abroad, which show in-school transmission is very low when other preventative measures are in place. Roche says it’s led a lot of districts and states to rethink how they quarantine.

Alternatives to quarantine

Alternative models have been developing quickly, and many districts have modified how they respond to positive COVID-19 cases in just the last few weeks since school opened for the fall.

In some places, this means shortened quarantines for close contacts. Anchorage School District in Alaska actually removed their quarantine policy entirely, deciding to quarantine only symptomatic students.

A model called ‘test-to-stay’ has also been gaining wider momentum. That’s where close contacts students aren’t quarantined, but they are tested every day for about a week. Roche says they only go home if they test positive. Several states, including Massachusetts, now have a statewide test-to-stay option.

“In some states, this is now becoming the default," he says.

The test-to-stay model prioritizes keeping kids in school, essentially valuing continued education over small, but real health risks. It's gained a lot of popularity since August. Over thirty states now offer some sort of test-to-stay option.

But New York isn't one of them.

Weighing the risks

There are risks to reducing quarantines. Districts are being asked to walk a thin line, balancing "students' health and safety with their need to be learning and connecting to school", says Bree Dusseault, a principal researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “There isn’t one clear answer, and what we’re seeing is that districts are trying to decide where to draw the line.”

So far, New York drawing the line at the CDC, and sticking to the CDC’s stricter guidelines for quarantines. The CDC is currently reviewing the test-to-stay model.

Even if it is approved, and adopted by New York, Dusseault says there are other hurdles, "like the simple matter of execution." Do schools even have the resources to test so many kids? “COVID testing can be challenging to execute and afford," she says, and "given that districts are short-staffed, to put daily testing on top of it all…there are just a lot of demands on their time.”

But she says it will be critical to figure it out, on a local, state, and federal level. Because there are also risks associated with kids missing weeks of school.

"At the end, it comes down to this: kids need to be in school. This is the third school year impacted by COVID-19."

For now, New York and the North Country will continue to send home close contact students and do their best to keep those kids learning.

Read more stories from North Country Public Radio