In a major change, public school students will be allowed to remain in classrooms even if they have close contact with someone who tests positive for the coronavirus, state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said Wednesday.
The proposal sparked an unusual, high-level public rift among Brumley, Gov. John Bel Edwards and state health officer Dr. Joseph Kanter, who blasted the move.
"I think this is a bad call," Kanter said. "I think it is dangerous. I think it is going to put kids at risk."
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Edwards favors the quarantine guidelines in place today, according to a statement issued a few hours after Brumley spelled out the new option. "Quarantine is an important tool to slow the spread, especially in classrooms where children are too young to be vaccinated," according to the governor's statement.
Under current practice, students in close contact with a positive case of the virus are typically sent home to quarantine for days or longer.
The new plan would allow them to stay in school, and get a free test for COVID-19, if the parents or legal guardian opts to pursue that path.
Brumley said today's practice is damaging learning and some students are being sent home multiple times, sometimes for weeks at a time.
"We have families across the state that have expressed concerns to me multiple times," he said. "Their children have been quarantined two or three times."
"What we are trying to do is employ a common sense approach that returns control to the local community and allows them to make decisions in the best interest of their kids," Brumley said.
He added later, "The majority of infections are not spread at schools."
But his proposal put him at odds with both Edwards, who backed his bid for superintendent last year, and Kanter, who is the governor's most trusted aide on coronavirus policies.
The new option differs with recommendations of the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those in close contact with an infected person – within six feet for a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period – are usually advised to get a COVID-19 test as soon as possible and generally quarantine for 14 days.
However, students who come into contact can avoid quarantine if both the infected party and the student wore masks properly, were not closer than three feet, remain asymptomatic or if they are fully vaccinated.
"It is certainly against public health guidance," Kanter said of Brumley's plan.
The statement from Edwards' office said children are the fastest growing age group for COVID-19 and that quarantining and vaccines are the best tools to combat the virus.
Brumley said he does not have figures on how many students have been quarantined after close contacts.
Officials in each of the state's 69 school districts will decide whether to adopt the new option for Louisiana's roughly 700,000 public school students.
The move comes one day after Edwards announced that his indoor mask mandate will remain in effect until at least Oct. 27.
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Edwards and Kanter said Tuesday that, despite improvements in recent weeks, COVID-19 remains at high levels in all 64 parishes.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school districts makes COVID-19 protocol decisions with input from a health advisory committee, said Alexandra Deiro Stubbs, chief of communications and public relations for the district.
"We will share the department's latest guidance with them for review and a determination will be made at that point," Stubbs said in an email.
West Baton Rouge Parish School District Superintendent Wes Watts said he plans to adopt the new "parent choice" option spelled out by Brumley.
David Alexander, superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system, said Wednesday the new option will be effective for his students Thursday.
Henderson Lewis Jr., superintendent of NOLA-public schools, criticized Brumley's idea.
"The Louisiana Department of Education's decision flies in the face of the data, the science and the sound advice of our health and medical advisors when it comes to protecting our students and educators amid the latest surge in this pandemic," Lewis said in a statement.
Spokespeople for the Jefferson Parish and St. Tammany parishes school systems said the guidelines are under review.
Brumley said he thinks mandatory quarantines contributed to the drop in key tests scores given earlier this year in math, English, science and social studies.
"We can no longer ignore the unintended academic consequences of our students unnecessarily missing school," he said in a statement that accompanied his announcement.
Kanter said the move could backfire if preventing learning loss is the goal.
"It can well lead to more outbreaks," he said.
Staff writer Bob Warren contributed to this report.