School & District Management

How the Evolving Science on COVID Precautions Puts District Leaders in a Bind

By Evie Blad — January 27, 2022 7 min read
Rear view of school teenage boy with face protective mask in front of the school.
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For principals and district leaders trying to keep schools open during the ever-evolving pandemic, “following the science” can be complicated by shifting guidance and, sometimes, friction in their communities.

Even as public health officials project slowing rates of the COVID-19 omicron variant in many places, states and school districts continue to announce changes to policies related to contact tracing, masking, and efforts to slow transmission.

That policy see-saw has been a hallmark of the pandemic. Principals and superintendents have complained since schools first closed in 2020 that shifting—and sometimes conflicting—guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes it difficult to plan effective responses to the public health crisis, especially in communicating changes to parents and the public.

“I think all district administrators have had that challenge,” said Mary Pfeiffer, the administrator of the Neenah Joint School District in Wisconsin. “There’s not a national approach to this. Everyone is having to determine their own guidelines. There are so many differences based on geographic area.”

All of those factors swirled together in a perfect storm in early January: As schools prepared to reopen after winter break, scientists rushed to understand the severity and transmissibility of the omicron variant. And before schools reopened, the CDC announced new guidelines that would shorten quarantine periods to five days for people who no longer have COVID-19 symptoms.

Meanwhile, district leaders had to determine how to put those new guidelines into effect in their schools, accounting for all of the local circumstances that may complicate their application.

Education Week asked three district leaders how they have managed through constantly evolving guidelines.

Should students and staff have different isolation requirements after testing positive for COVID-19?

“What folks want to know is, ‘Will I be excluded from school or work?’ and ‘When can I come back?’” said Bridget O’Connell, superintendent of the Palisades School District in Kintnersville, Pa.

In a Jan. 4 online message to families, O’Connell arranged new rules on quarantine and isolation in a chart to make them easy to understand. Students and staff without symptoms could return to school five days after a positive COVID-19 test if they agreed to wear a mask for the five following days in compliance with CDC guidelines, the chart says.

Palisades schools make masks optional, but district leaders may require face coverings temporarily in some buildings if virus rates climb too high.

For Pfeiffer, the Wisconsin superintendent, masking presented a wrinkle in applying the CDC guidelines. In her district, students are only required to wear masks if more than 2 percent of COVID-19 tests administered in their building come back positive.

Because masking is not always required, district leaders and county health officials in her area set different quarantine rules for students and staff. Staff, who can be trusted to wear a mask, may return to work after five days of quarantine if they don’t have symptoms, Pfeiffer said. But it may be more difficult to monitor whether returning children feel well and wear their masks properly, so the district maintained a 10-day quarantine period for students.

“To simply say, ‘We are going to follow the CDC guidelines,’ I don’t think that’s doing our due diligence,” Pfeiffer said. “We absolutely want to have children in school. I don’t want to minimize that. We also want to make sure we have the safest environment we can in order to have students stay in school.”

Teachers and staff can stay home longer if they are uncomfortable with returning, Pfeiffer said, and district leaders check in during quarantine period to ensure employees don’t come back before their symptoms have resolved.

But in some places, educators who worry about returning to classrooms too soon have been deeply skeptical of differing quarantine and isolation protocols for students and staff. New York City schools, which previously had differing policies for children and adults, announced Jan. 25 that it would reduce isolation periods to five days for asymptomatic students, the local news station NY1 reported. That move comes as virus rates decline in the nation’s largest district.

Can students returning from isolation participate in extracurricular activities?

Leaders in the East Syracuse-Minoa Central School District in Syracuse, N.Y., have had to clarify when students who’ve contracted COVID-19 can return to playing sports and participating in extracurricular activities, Superintendent Donna DeSiato said.

While students without symptoms or a fever can return to school five days after a positive test, they must sit out activities for 10 days, she said. The aim is to get children back into the classroom, where all students are required to wear masks, as quickly as it is safe. But some activities that involve closer contact may come with a higher risk of transmission.

Some schools have also restricted activities for students who’ve come in close contact with those infected with COVID-19, even if those exposed students are allowed in the classroom. States like Ohio, for example, recommend “test-to-stay” policies that will allow athletes to continue playing after exposure if they take regular rapid antigen tests.

The CDC recommends that “high-risk sports and extracurricular activities” like wrestling and choir, should be canceled in communities with high levels of transmission unless all participants are vaccinated. But, as Education Week reported this month, many schools have ignored that advice.

Should schools require masks? What kind?

Before the emergence of omicron, some states and districts loosened universal masking requirements, only requiring face coverings in areas of high transmission. But the new variant broke records in some areas, causing leaders to double back on their plans.

The issue remains contentious, no matter what administrators do. Districts in some states are still battling with leaders who’ve prohibited mask mandates. In Missouri, Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt has sued districts that require masks. In Virginia, more than half of districts have defied an executive order by new Gov. Glenn Youngkin that banned universal school mask requirements, a Washington Post analysis found. In Oregon, conversely, state leaders withheld federal relief aid from the rural Alsea school district after it refused to enforce the state’s school mask mandate.

Research that shows surgical and KN95 masks are more effective against omicron have led some school leaders to question whether fabric masks are adequate. The Los Angeles Unified School District announced Jan. 22 that students must wear “well-fitted, non-cloth masks with a nose wire,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Even as many students and staff demand schools provide high-quality masks, many districts have struggled to secure them at reasonable prices.

In general, federal health officials say children should wear a well-fitted mask that covers their face tightly. And the CDC warns that KN95 and N95 masks have not been tested for extended use by children.

Can schools keep up with contact tracing?

While the CDC recommends contact tracing as a key school prevention strategy some states and districts have abandoned it altogether.

District leaders in some areas feel less urgency because students as young as 5 now qualify for vaccines. Some have said surging case loads make it difficult to track transmission, especially as they struggle with staffing issues across school departments. But health officials in several states, say the variant’s rapid spread makes it difficult to identify a student’s close contacts before the possible five-day quarantine period has elapsed.

“The quick spread of the omicron variant and its rapid clinical course have made universal contact tracing, case investigation and exposure notification impractical when combined with newly reduced timelines for quarantine and isolation,” Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health said in a memo to school superintendents Wednesday.

Ohio will no longer require schools to conduct universal contact tracing, but Vanderhoff urged school leaders to assist local health officials if needed. Several other states—including Oregon, Georgia, and Indiana— have made similar shifts in recent weeks.

Even as districts in those states scale back contact tracing, schools around the country have maintained that work and stepped up efforts to reduce time out of school by allowing students who’ve been exposed to the virus to attend in-person if they wear masks, take periodic tests, and monitor for symptoms.

What’s next?

Perhaps the biggest question for district leaders: What comes after omicron?

Before the variant emerged, some started to picture an off-ramp for cumbersome virus precautions. But the path of the pandemic is uncertain, and health experts have warned that future variants could cause further disruption.

Leaders said they must continue to respond to changing scientific evidence while maintaining credibility among sometimes divided communities.

For DeSiato, of Syracuse, that means regular communication with health officials and the state health department and discussions with fellow administrators about what’s working on the ground.

“We’ve recognized that, really from the very beginning, there’s been an ongoing understanding that the guidance is going to continue to evolve,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as How the Evolving Science on COVID Precautions Puts District Leaders in a Bind

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