The test results are in. Consensus is building that America’s students should be back in the classroom. From the American Academy of Pediatrics, who pushed for a return to in-person learning in June, to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, who called schools "one of the safest places [kids] can be," government officials are finally beginning to acknowledge what a growing body of science has shown for a long time: Our kids need to be in school.
Unfortunately, this hard-fought victory was just a midterm quiz. Policymakers from the U.S. House to the schoolhouse now face an all-important final exam if they want to make the grade: Reforming overzealous contact tracing and quarantine protocols that are keeping too many healthy students out of class, too many doctors and nurses off of the front line, and too many working-class parents stuck at home instead of earning paychecks.
In a liberal media environment dominated by alarmist, virus-related headlines, an important fact being lost in the noise is that a student’s mere "exposure" to a classmate or school staff member who tests positive for the coronavirus is not the same as an infection. As a result, mere exposure to a confirmed case in schools can set off a compounding contact tracing effect that can culminate in large numbers of students who are not ill being sent home for weeks at a time – and in the most extreme cases, a re-shuttering of classrooms.
Last month in Lowellville, Ohio, the positive test of a single cafeteria worker resulted in the removal of the entire student body and exile back to "remote learning" (perhaps the greatest misnomer of 2020). Even though many of the students did not qualify as "close contacts," the lone positive test of a kitchen worker (and the contact tracing and mandatory quarantines it set in motion) knocked out enough support staff to force a complete school closure.
Forcing children into an online learning model not only penalizes the students and teachers, but also the parents who are constantly adjusting hopelessly disrupted work schedules to meet unpredictable schooling arrangements.
In the month of September more than 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce as the result of pandemic-related circumstances – these are mostly working moms who were forced to weigh the costs of hiring tutors or babysitters to supervise their child’s online learning versus quitting their own job to fulfill that role.
There are also ripple effects causing severe and largely underreported dislocations to our health care system.
Each day we hear about health care facilities across the country reaching their bed capacity for COVID patients. However, in many communities, particularly rural ones, capacity limits are dictated as much by staffing shortages caused by mandatory student quarantines as bed space.
In short, contact tracing measures force healthy doctors and nurses who should be treating patients to stay home with their children who are actually not ill.
Current protocols are also exposing the challenges of online learning, particularly for those in small towns and farm communities. According to the Center on Rural Innovation, upwards of 4.6 million school-aged children are without reliable broadband access. That number skyrockets to 15 million school-age children when we include the number of children who do not live in a household with adequate online connectivity – and the results have been stark.
A recent analysis of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment tests found students are falling behind in math at a staggering rate – and more than 1 in 4 children from low-income communities who took the assessment in 2019 were missing from the 2020 assessments all together, highlighting the growing number of kids falling through the cracks of online learning’s widening digital divide.
There is a better way.
An example of contact tracing that does not penalize students is found in Newton County, Missouri, where the county health officer has allowed schools to keep students in school who have been contact traced to an "exposure" despite never testing positive for the virus. Students are still required to quarantine outside of the classroom after school ends each day.
The results have been eye-opening. The Newton County schools that keep kids in school have no higher incidence of COVID-19 than other local schools that are following the more restrictive protocols. In fact, they may be having more success precisely because they are keeping kids in school rather than allowing them to move about the community during classroom hours.
At my daughter’s school, Lakeland Union High School (LUHS) in Minocqua, Wisconsin, more than 350 students were removed from school for a 14-day period as the result of overly restrictive contact tracing requirements, even though ZERO of those students reported testing positive for COVID-19.
Officials at LUHS have since revised their policy to allow for children contact traced back to a positive case to remain in school pending the ongoing monitoring of symptoms – a much more workable approach that makes educational attainment of students a top priority, one that is based on data and science rather than fear.
The case of LUHS is particularly relevant because school officials took extraordinary measures recommended by the CDC – including the installation of plexiglass desk dividers, modified entrance methods, mask and distancing requirements – only to have those steps dismissed out of hand by a county health officer who opposed the school board’s effort to adopt a more rational approach to quarantines.
Ironically, the county health officer based her objections on the same CDC guidance that drove school officials to adopt these extraordinary mitigating measures, underscoring the problematic lack of clarity coming from Washington.
We are learning more about this virus each day, and we should apply that knowledge by updating K-12 COVID protocols. The overly defensive contact tracing models currently in place not only undermine the education of our kids, they also make secondary problems like medical staffing shortfalls far worse.
Health care leaders – particularly at the CDC – must work more closely to update their guidance rather than acquiescing to a default model that effectively facilitates school closures.
If a school is utilizing sound risk management tools, policymakers must empower them to adopt locally tailored protocols that best serve parents, students and the well-being of their communities.