By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Going against health guidance, Louisiana’s education department announced Wednesday it’s no longer recommending that public school systems quarantine asymptomatic students who have come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
Louisiana’s 69 local school districts already had the ability to determine whether they want to send the students home for days because of exposure to the coronavirus illness. But most of the districts had been following the state education department’s recommendation that those students should be quarantined, even if they don’t show symptoms of COVID-19.
The new guidance issued by Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley suggests districts could instead choose to notify parents of the exposure and let the parents decide whether to keep the child in school or isolated at home — with parents offered a free COVID-19 test for the student.
The announcement comes as Louisiana is emerging from its fourth surge of the coronavirus illness, with infection rates and COVID-19 hospitalizations falling. Louisiana has dropped to among the nation’s lowest per capita rates for new cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Brumley’s changed quarantine recommendation is at odds with the advice of state and federal health officials. Gov. John Bel Edwards also doesn’t support the change, with his administration pointing to the larger rate of COVID-19 infections among children in the most recent spike.
Brumley called the updated state recommendations a “common-sense” approach that focuses on local control of schools and that could help students avoid being sent home multiple times across the school year and missing needed days of class. He said schools haven’t proven to be super-spreader environments for COVID-19.
“One of the things I continue to hear is just frustration among educators with the amount of quarantines taking place for students, and I’m certainly hearing that from parents,” Brumley said in an interview. “There are unintended consequences of these quarantines.”
The Louisiana Department of Health did not back the policy change suggested for the state’s 700,000 public school students and wasn’t consulted, said agency spokesperson Aly Neel. Brumley said he told the department about his decision Wednesday, shortly before releasing it publicly.
“We strongly recommend that school districts follow public health guidance and parents quarantine unvaccinated children who may have been in close contact to someone with COVID. Doing so is critical to slowing the spread and protecting children, families, school staff and communities at large,” Neel said in a statement.
The new education guidance runs afoul of CDC recommendations. The federal agency suggests that anyone who comes within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more should quarantine whether they have symptoms or not, unless fully vaccinated against the coronavirus disease. The Louisiana health department guidance drops that to 3 feet at K-12 schools if both the student who tested positive and the close contact were wearing masks and asymptomatic.
Edwards spokesperson Christina Stephens said the Democratic governor believes school districts should follow the quarantine guidance issued by health officials, rather than Brumley. Edwards announced Tuesday he was keeping in place through October a statewide indoor mask mandate that applies to K-12 schools.
“Quarantine is an important tool to slow the spread, especially in classrooms where children are too young to be vaccinated,” Stephens said in a statement. “Children are now the fastest growing age group for COVID in Louisiana.”
Brumley doesn’t expect all Louisiana school systems to end quarantines for asymptomatic students.
“Systems should be flexible in response to the virus. If we see an uptick in the virus, additional restrictions should go into place,” Brumley said.
New Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. panned the new guidance and said his district will continue to quarantine students who come into close contact with someone who tests positive.
“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,” Lewis said in a statement.
Brumley’s recommendations haven’t changed for students who test positive for COVID-19 or who show symptoms of the illness: They should isolate until they have recovered or are no longer infectious.