State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley’s plan to let students exposed to the coronavirus remain in the classroom sparked pushback Thursday from the education and health communities and even the board that hired him 16 months ago.

Sandy Holloway, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, called Brumley's announcement Wednesday abrupt and inconsistent. "Past decisions and guidance were based on consultation with health officials, review of data and the advice of the Louisiana Department of Health," Holloway said.

She and others on the board, which picked Brumley in May 2020, said they were blindsided by the change.

"The full board was not made aware of and did not have an opportunity to review the guidelines prior to their release," Holloway said.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system will not change its current practices, Superintendent Sito Narcisse announced Thursday.

The Livingston Parish school system will adopt the new state option, officials said.

Brumley said he is telling local school districts they have the option of letting students who come into close contact with students or staff who test positive for COVID-19 to remain in the classroom if their parents or guardians opt to do so.

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State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley.

Under the previous recommendation, which is backed by the state health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students exposed to the virus were sent home to quarantine for varying amounts of time.

Brumley said students being repeatedly placed in quarantine prompted complaints from parents.

But state health officer Dr. Joseph Kanter on Wednesday called the move dangerous and one that will put children at risk.

On Thursday Dr. Leron Finger, chief quality officer for Children's Hospital in New Orleans, who has advised Brumley and BESE on virus policies, said he would recommend that quarantine guidelines remain in place.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said he also favors keeping current quarantine guidelines intact, especially amid the rising number of COVID-19 cases among children.

BESE member Belinda Davis, who lives in Baton Rouge and is one of the governor's three appointees on the board, said she and others learned of Brumley's new guidance in The Advocate.

"Until now, every COVID recommendation LDOE has made has been in line with the recommendations of LDH," Davis said.

"I am at a loss to explain this abrupt departure," she added, a reference to state Department of Health guidelines.

LDOE stands for Louisiana Department of Education. LDH is Louisiana Department of Health.

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On Thursday Brumley declined to respond to criticism from Holloway, Kanter and the governor.

"I appreciate the role they play," Brumley said. "I have just had an increasing number of educators and parents share with me their frustrations around the students not having access to their school because of quarantines."

"We are not mandating," Brumley added. "Nor am I speaking out in favor. We are just simply giving systems an additional option."

Brumley has previously touted the support of the medical community when BESE enacted safety standards to combat the pandemic.

The board's initial standards, approved in June 2020, were praised by Kanter, who was then state medical director, and Dr. Billy Lennarz, chair of pediatrics for Ochsner Health System and Finger.

Brumley said Thursday he spoke with members of the medical community "who felt this was an appropriate response" but declined to cite specific doctors.

Finger said wearing face masks indoors, encouraging vaccines and quarantining students when they come into close contact with someone who tested positive are all steps that have kept students and others safe.

The Livingston, Ascension and West Baton Rouge parishes school systems said they will adopt the new state guidance.

The state's two teacher unions criticized the new option.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers said Brumley's plan has triggered confusion and concern among parents and educators.

"If school districts decide to adopt this new recommendation from the LDOE then we will undoubtedly see increased spread of COVID-19 in schools and more children and staff sick, which will then spread through the entire community," the group said.

Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators said, "Given the contagiousness of the virus, the dangers outweigh the benefits."

Brigitte Nieland, director of government affairs for the advocacy group Stand For Children, disputed Brumley's claim that his new guidance is called "parent choice."

"When you give more choice to select parents by taking away the choice from the majority of parents that is not a choice," Nieland said. "And that is what he is doing. To put a potentially infected child who is infected with a deadly virus in a classroom with unvaccinated children and a teacher, those other parents have no choice. You have removed all of that."

In a message to the staff, Narcisse said he previously said science would guide district decisions on the virus as well as the recommendations of the state Department of Health and the CDC.

"The guidance of these healthcare professionals has not changed and has remained clear on the quarantine guidelines for unvaccinated individuals and their close contacts,' he said.

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