Park City schools ease quarantine protocols for masked contacts
Move aims to keep more kids in schools
The Park City School District this month loosened its quarantine protocols, its superintendent said, implementing a policy that is less strict than federal and state guidelines in a bid to keep more students in school.
The change affects “close contacts” of students who contract the coronavirus. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, the student who sits at the desk next to them during class wouldn’t necessarily have to quarantine if both students wore masks for the entire time, Superintendent Jill Gildea indicated.
Previously, the district required any close contact of a student who tested positive to quarantine for 14 days.
The district continues to quarantine students when the school administrators investigating a case determine that the situation warrants it, like if the two students worked closely on a project or ate lunch together. They also take a student’s health situation into account, Gildea said.
She said the new policy would keep more students in classrooms, one of the district’s central goals during the pandemic.
“Access to the classroom/learning environment is a really important factor in student success,” Gildea wrote in an email to The Park Record. She also said “… (The quarantine protocol) moves less from blanket or widespread removal in the isolate/mitigate strategy to a more targeted or streamlined approach to preventive quarantine.”
In October, the number of quarantined students reached 451 on one day, some 15 per active case, according to district data. Gildea estimated that the new protocols would result in two to four students quarantining per positive case of COVID-19.
It is unclear when the policy change occurred, and Gildea declined a request for more information.
On Dec. 11, Gildea wrote in an email to The Park Record that the district was no longer automatically quarantining students who were in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, as long as both people were wearing masks for the entire encounter.
The district continues to investigate each case and notifies the parents of students who were in “close contact” with someone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus.
The policy is a departure from the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Utah Department of Health. The CDC defines a close contact as someone who was within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for 15 minutes.
The federal agency recommends against differentiating between close contacts based on whether they’re wearing face coverings.
State guidelines hew closely to federal ones, and Gildea said she anticipated state guidelines would soon change. She added that very few students who quarantine end up testing positive for COVID-19.
A state health spokesperson did not have data about what percentage of quarantined students test positive for the disease.
After a recent change in state guidelines, asymptomatic students who are quarantining may now receive a test on the seventh day after they were exposed to COVID-19 and return to class once they have received a negative result.
School districts are empowered to determine their own COVID protocols, though the three superintendents in Summit County have coordinated closely and met regularly with Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough.
Bullough recently said he’d become convinced that schools were among the safest places for students to be, a position he referred to as “a 180” from what he thought before the school year started.
He has indicated that school-based spread has not been as prevalent as he thought it would be before the school year started.
A South Summit School District spokesperson said that district has considered making a similar change to Park City’s, but was waiting for the state guidelines to be updated.
“We’ve been notified that districts have the autonomy to make the decision to not quarantine if it’s a mask on mask exposure in a school setting,” said South Summit spokesperson Jodi Jones. “South Summit School District anticipates that this will become the protocol recommended by the State of Utah, however we are awaiting that direction from the Utah Department of Health.”
A North Summit School District official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A Utah State Board of Health spokesperson said the board had considered changing the quarantine recommendations.
“We have seen many districts throughout the state work with their local health departments to adapt the recommendations … to fit their own unique needs,” said Tom Hudachko, a Utah Department of Health spokesperson, in an email Monday. “The quarantine model that PCSD is currently following is something that we are considering … but we haven’t made a final determination on that yet.”
On the first day of October, 451 Park City students were under quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19 — nearly 10% of the entire student body — according to data published by the district.
There were 30 active cases of COVID-19 that day, the district data shows, meaning about 15 times as many students were quarantined than there were confirmed cases of COVID-19.
On Dec. 6, there were 41 active cases of COVID-19 in the district, but only 165 quarantine absences, or about four absences per case.
In South Summit, about six to 10 students quarantine for each confirmed case of COVID-19, Jones said.
In North Summit, Superintendent Jerre Holmes indicated earlier this month that the district had quarantined up to 25 students for one positive case of COVID-19. He said the district had learned from some mistakes it made early in the pandemic, and had since reduced the number of students quarantining.
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Park City School District is partnering with the Utah Department of Health to provide free rapid testing for COVID-19 to the entire Park City community.