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State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley looks at damage to West Jefferson High School earlier this month.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley's decision to contradict the COVID-19 quarantine guidance of public health officials is creating sharp divides in Louisiana's school districts, which already were a hotbed of disputes over how to handle coronavirus infections.

By bucking the medical advice, Brumley's left school system leaders to debate whether to follow recommendations aimed at combating the pandemic or to side with those complaining about asymptomatic children repeatedly sent home to quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure.

An Associated Press review of a dozen larger Louisiana school systems shows a split in their response to Brumley's updated guidance.

As Louisiana was emerging from its fourth coronavirus surge, Brumley told school system leaders Sept. 29 that he was loosening the education department's quarantine guidance for Louisiana's 700,000 public school students amid concerns about learning loss.

He's no longer suggesting schools send home asymptomatic students who have come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 as is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, Brumley suggests parents could choose whether to send their children to school if they don't have symptoms.

“Students have regrettably missed unprecedented days of school. These absences have consequences ranging from student learning to student well-being,” Brumley wrote to school leaders. “These quarantines have also placed an undue burden on parents trying to solve childcare dilemmas for their children when they're forced to be absent from school.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Department of Health are urging districts to stick with sending students home if they’ve been close to someone infected.

Louisiana's state epidemiologist Theresa Sokol sent a letter to district superintendents saying that roughly half of COVID-19 infections can involve people spreading the virus despite having no symptoms. She noted one-quarter of all COVID-19 cases in Louisiana since August have been among children. Already this school year, K-12 schools around Louisiana have self-reported nearly 21,000 student cases of COVID-19 and another 2,475 cases among faculty and staff.

“The decision to quarantine cannot rest with parents of children who are at risk of spreading the disease to others; this would deprive other parents of any option to protect their children from exposure," Sokol wrote. “In order to effectively curb COVID-19 transmission in schools, quarantine policies must be based on the best available evidence for disease control, not personal preference.”

Larger school systems differ in how they're responding to Brumley's latest guidance.

Public school districts in New Orleans, Monroe, East Baton Rouge Parish, Caddo Parish, Lafayette Parish and Jefferson Parish (where Brumley was superintendent until mid-2020) have refused to loosen their quarantine rules.

“After consulting with medical professionals, we have decided not to implement this practice,” Jefferson Parish Superintendent James Gray said in an online post.

The Bossier Parish school system said it needs “more clarity” before making changes.

But school officials in Livingston, Ascension, St. Tammany, Calcasieu and Tangipahoa parishes quickly embraced the policy shift, deciding to let parents choose whether to keep their children away from school if they've been close to someone who's tested positive for COVID-19.

“Our school nurses will continue to contact the parents or employees of close contacts and make them aware of all options available through our school system, pertaining to quarantines," Livingston Parish Superintendent Joe Murphy said in a statement.

Brumley noted local school districts already could set their own rules about whether to send students home for days because of exposure to COVID-19. But most districts had been following the education department's guidance that those students should be quarantined.

It likely was an easier decision to make when the education and health departments were on the same page in supporting the recommendations of infectious disease experts.

Brumley won praise for his position shift from the Republican Party of Louisiana and several conservative GOP state lawmakers who oppose mask mandates and coronavirus-related restrictions.

Ascension Parish Republican Rep. Kathy Edmonston called the new policy a “common-sense approach” that “allows local control, gives parents' choice and encourages students to continue attending classes when they are healthy.”

Edwards disagreed, saying he told Brumley his new guidance was “unfortunate.”

“I think ultimately it will be self-defeating in the sense that there will be more COVID in the school and not less and there will end up being more disruption to student learning and not less,” the Democratic governor said.

School districts are deciding whether they want to take that risk.

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.

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