More schoolchildren in Louisiana are coming down with coronavirus than ever before, but local K-12 leaders say they are still managing to quarantine fewer students than before.
They credit a change in state rules that allow exposed students to stay in class as long as they faithfully wore masks and showed no signs of sickness.
“Last year we had fewer positive cases, but more quarantined kids, but this year we have more positive kids with less quarantined kids,” Zachary schools superintendent Scott Devillier said.
“From our standpoint, the mask mandate has kept the quarantines much lower than it was,” Jason Fountain, superintendent of Central schools, said.
It’s an irony not lost on these leaders that mandatory mask-wearing helps make the new school year a reality. Their districts had been intent on making masks optional this year. They held firm to that position until Gov. John Bel Edwards, on the eve of the new school year, reinstated a statewide masking mandate. On Friday, Edwards extended the mandate by four weeks.
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Adherence to compulsory masking, while unpopular among many, has made it much easier for Louisiana schools to take advantage of the state’s latest and less restrictive guidelines for schools.
Those guidelines, first issued in June and updated several times since, call for quarantines ranging from eight to 14 days for close contacts. A close contact is someone who within 24 hours stands for more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of a person who has the virus.
Not all close contacts, though, have to quarantine anymore.
If both the person who is positive and the close contact were “engaged in consistent and correct use of a well-fitting face mask” and at least 3 feet apart from each other “then those close contacts do not need to quarantine.” The new exemption, however, applies only to students; adults in this same situation still have to quarantine.
The new state rules also allow close contacts to stay in school if they’ve had COVID-19 within the previous 90 days or if they’ve been fully vaccinated.
None of the exemptions apply if the close contact shows symptoms.
Wes Watts, superintendent of West Baton Rouge schools, said the new guidelines, particularly the exemption for students who mask up, have been “a huge help” in allowing his district to continue full in-person instruction while the state struggles through a fourth wave of the pandemic.
“We have more student positive cases this year, fewer adult positives, but overall a lot fewer quarantines due to the masks,” he said.
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The school leaders say they say their schools are adhering closely to the masking rules. Consequently, their students are presumed to be compliant and eligible for the exemption, but they rely on teachers to let them know when that’s not the case. And in complicated situations they say they seek out advice from state health officials.
Watts said he has quarantined a few kids when their teachers flagged them as inconsistent mask-wearers. But he said he’s not quarantining students who slip up from time to time, saying kids are not “robots.”
“We do it if it’s blatant,” Watts said.
Hollis Milton, superintendent for West Feliciana Parish schools, said he and other educational leaders were in unfamiliar territory last year.
“Last year it just felt like the rules were pretty restrictive,” Milton said. “You just did it and followed it as closely as you could.”
But this year’s rules combined with more experience has led to better judgment calls on quarantines in schools. He said it can go either way depending on the situation.
“You may use it to quarantine more students,” he said.
Fountain in Central said after disappointing results last year from virtual instruction, he and other school leaders now want as much face-to-face instruction as possible. And mandatory masking combined with the new quarantine rules help that effort.
“The masks, as challenging as that has been, is the best opportunity to be able to do that,” Fountain said.
There’s limited data to evaluate how Louisiana schools are handling quarantines this year compared to last.
Some school districts release data on quarantines, but many don’t.
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New Orleans public schools release perhaps the most extensive public data on quarantines in the state. In its most recent weekly report, 9.1% of its 45,000 students were being quarantined.
In the Baton Rouge region, among districts that do release student quarantine data, weekly rates of students having to quarantine range from 1 to 6%. But districts don’t count their numbers the same way. For instance, East Baton Rouge Parish’s current 2.8% rate excludes students quarantined thanks to cases that occurred outside of school.
While it publishes a weekly report on case counts in schools among students and staff, the Louisiana Department of Health does not ask schools to report if any are quarantined.
Their neighbors with the Mississippi Department of Health do and they show quarantines are higher than at any time last school year. Its most recent weekly report showed that nearly 29,000 students, or about 5.9% of all schoolchildren in the state, were under quarantine. That’s more than double the number of quarantines during the worst week last school year.
Like Louisiana, Mississippi schools don’t have to quarantine students who are exposed but wear masks correctly. Unlike Louisiana, Mississippi is not requiring masks, so far fewer students wear them.
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Louisiana schools have a lot to fight off. Schoolchildren in the state are contracting the virus at record rates.
In the third week of August, the most recent available, 6,909 school-aged children in the state were infected, nearly three times the number infected during the worst week last year. Around that same time, K-12 schools across the state reported a total of 4,009 cases on their campuses, more than double any week last school year.
When they do happen, quarantines can be very disruptive.
On her son’s second day of school at Denham Springs Elementary, Monica DeLaune got a call in the evening telling her the third-grader had been exposed to COVID and needed to quarantine.
Hours later, her left side went completely numb, her chest tightened and she passed out. She was rushed to the hospital.
Two weeks before, DeLaune, 35, had tested positive for the virus and later was diagnosed with a hemiplegic migraine post-COVID that caused stroke-like symptoms.
Her son quarantining at home was another worry in an exhausting and stressful month.
“I’m not able to care for my own kids right now,” said DeLaune, a mother of two. “I’m not allowed to be left alone with my kids. It’s scary. It’s rough.”
Her son, who has trouble concentrating and focusing, missed his first week of school due to quarantine, she said. That’s an important week, when students review what they learned the previous year, a year he missed a lot of.
“I don’t want him to fall behind,” she said. “He’s ADD, ADHD. I have a hard enough time keeping him in a mask. School’s difficult enough right now.”
DeLaune said the previous year her son was out at least twice after potential exposure to the virus — a pattern she hopes will not be repeated.
“He needs to be present,” she said. “He missed enough last year because of COVID exposures. I don’t want to deal with that again.”