In Iowa, some school districts are playing a game of musical chairs in order to skirt mandatory quarantining for students exposed to COVID-19, a method health experts warn may only put students at greater risk for infection.
Since early September, Waukee and Woodbury Central Community School Districts have told teachers to get students up and walking around every 12-14 minutes in order to minimize consecutive time spent next to classmates. The 14-minute limit would allow most students to remain learning in-person even if someone in the classroom tests positive for COVID-19. The Iowa Department of Public Health guidelines state that only those exposed to the virus for 15 consecutive minutes within 6 feet need to quarantine after exposure.
Educators in various Northwest Iowa schools have also been encouraged to move students around every 14 minutes, said Uniserv Director at Iowa State Education Association Amy DeGroot-Hammer.
Waukee High School teachers were informed that they need to engage in this practice at a staff meeting on Sept. 4. Instructions were given by the district nurse, who encouraged staff to have 1-2 rows of students leave the classroom at 12 minutes, another row leave at 13 minutes and the final rows leave at 14 minutes—suggesting that students be dismissed to get a drink.
In an email to a concerned Waukee High School parent, principal Cary Justman said the practice has no intent to get around quarantine, rather to keep “our healthy kids healthy.” However, teachers who attended the meeting said the district nurse noted this practice “will keep kids out of quarantine.”
“We mentioned 12-14 minutes of moving cohorts around and also mentioned some classes going outside for masks breaks,” Justman said in an email to the Waukee parent. “If kids were to move every 12-15 minutes, they are to stay within their cohort, to better help us in contact tracing.. not to avoid it. And our Lead Nurse Jo even reiterated that we will look at each case individually and some students may be quarantined based on more than just 15 minutes if there is more exposure.”
Jesse Persons is the mother of a sophomore at Woodbury Central High School in Moville—the other school that is attempting the use of movement every 14 minutes. Persons said she met with the district Superintendent Doug Glackin to voice concerns she had with the practice.
Glackin told her that the school was “trying out” the 14-minute break as an effort to minimize the number of students in quarantine.
“I have shared with him that I fear it is manipulation of the CDC guideline and that in my opinion it is reckless, especially considering that masks are not required,” Persons said.
“It is my understanding that the majority of high school students are not wearing masks. The superintendent shared with me concerns of having healthy students in quarantine that should be in school, and athletes missing sporting events if they are in quarantine but not sick.”
A Lawton teacher who requested to remain anonymous said she has been in contact with Siouxland District Health about this practice in districts across the state. The department noted that IDPH changed its parameters about exposure pretty recently, making this practice appropriate.
On June 30, IDPH released Return to Learn guidance which said that when identifying close contacts exposed to COVID-19 cases, individuals who had been within 6 feet for more for any 15 minutes with a positive case during the infectious period are at risk— triggering a quarantine recommendation.
Over a month later, on Aug. 14, the Department of Education released through Frequently Asked Question document clarification on how identifying close contacts of a COVID-19 case is calculated.
They highlighted that 15 minutes refers to 15 consecutive minutes when identifying close contacts, not 15 minutes across a span of time such as a school day.
“I was further told [that Siouxland District Health] set the guidance and how schools interpret it is up to them. I registered my complaint and got the idea they agreed with me that these actions destroy contact tracing, but they aren’t going to do anything about it,” the Lawton teacher said.
Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Iowa said there is no evidence that this practice would reduce the risk of catching COVID-19.
“It is true that we think that the longer you spend indoors with a sicker person increases your risk, but there is no finite threshold such that 14 minutes is safe,” he said. “I think that any sort of strategy like this that is used to block the use of contact tracing and quarantining will probably increase the spread of the virus. You’re going to have a false sense of security that you don’t need to quarantine because you’ve only spent 14 minutes with the person.”
Perencevich noted that the virus’ spread is dependent on further variables than just time spent with a positive case. Activity—such as singing or shouting—are just some ways that COVID-19 could spread more rapidly.
“There are just too many variables. Maybe 5 minutes of someone shouting would infect someone. We just don’t know,” he said. “But basically all [the 14 minute movements] does is counter public health interventions we need to do to stop the spread of the virus. The virus doesn’t care. The virus is going to keep spreading. We can make the situation worse by blocking the interventions we know do work, like quarantining if you’re exposed, or contact tracing.”
Experts are also concerned that this practice may disrupt any actual educational purposes, negating the benefits of in-person learning.
“It would ruin the continuity of instruction and it really won’t solve the problem of COVID spread,” said Bruce Lear, a retired teacher and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association.
by Isabella Murray
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