During the 2020-21 school year, kids quarantining with COVID or after an exposure to COVID, were frequently able to watch and participate in class from home through Zoom or other video conferencing software. But in the pre-Delta variant days of spring and early summer, many districts announced remote learning options would not be available going forward.
The reasons for this decision made some sense at the time. Managing in-person and remote students, with sometimes underpowered equipment, was onerous for educators and didn’t always offer students the best learning opportunities. In addition, when planning for the upcoming school year was conducted, COVID cases were plummeting and many school leaders and others believed that quarantines would be less common.
Today, the optimism of spring and early summer seems a distant memory and school leaders can no longer afford to believe that COVID disruptions will be minimal. Districts are now adopting a variety of strategies to keep students in class and keep them from falling behind if they have to quarantine.
1. Quickly Identify COVID and Keep Symptomatic Students/Staff at Home
It sounds obvious but having students and staff continue to stay home when they are symptomatic is potentially one key to keeping schools open to in-person learning. Having less symptomatic students in class also helps cut back on the spread of other common respiratory viruses. At the Green County Schools district in Snow Hill, N.C., last year, students who were symptomatic were supposed to stay home. When students showed up with symptoms anyhow they were quickly examined by a nurse.
“We're fortunate in that we have a school nurse in every school,” says Patrick C. Miller, Ed.D., superintendent of Greene County Schools. “When we had these issues where kids came in with runny noses, or a cough or any other type of respiratory issue, our school did an assessment, and based on that assessment, would decide whether or not a COVID referral was needed. And believe it or not, if a child presented with respiratory issues that did not always end with a COVID referral. Some kids have allergy issues or asthma, and they were able to determine that it was a non-COVID issue based on professional opinion.”
2. Help Limit Contacts With Vaccines & Masks
Michael Lubelfeld, Ed.D, superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Illinois, is optimistic that changes to quarantine rules will help keep more students in-person this year.
“The Illinois Department of Public Health has revised its quarantine rules,” he says. “So vaccinated people, for example, which is about 97% of our adult staff, will not have to quarantine, if they're a close contact. We have seventh and eighth graders vaccinated, so they potentially would not have to quarantine.”
As far as students too young to be vaccinated, masks are mandated for students and staff in Illinois schools, which can help reduce both the spread and the number of COVID contacts that need to be quarantined. “If you're masked, you may not have to quarantine either,” Lubelfeld says. “So the whole game has changed. All the rules have changed. And I think the bottom line here in Illinois is the goal for in-person schooling is really what the Department of Public Health is endorsing in its support of the CDC's latest guidelines.”
3. Test to Stay in Class
Increased testing will also be a part of the strategy to keep students in-person at certain schools. Massachusetts recently announced its schools will use a “test and stay” protocol to allow students who have come in contact with someone with the coronavirus remain in school provided they take a daily test every day for at least five days. Massachusetts schools will use the Abbott BinaxNOW rapid test, which is easy to administer and takes about 15 minutes for results.
Frequent testing is also being used to limit outbreaks. Lubelfeld’s district has partnered with the University of Illinois to administer its saliva-based spit COVID test twice per week to unvaccinated students and staff on school grounds. “This is twice as much as we did it last year,” Lubelfeld says. While the testing is currently optional, he hopes 70 to 80 percent of the schools unvaccinated population will participate twice a week.
4. Support Students at Home
Even the best mitigation strategies won’t be 100 percent successful. So when students are forced to quarantine with positive COVID cases or exposures, schools are employing a variety of strategies to support them.
At Greene County Schools, classes will not be streamed over a video conferencing platform, as happened frequently last year. Instead, students will get emailed assignments as they did pre-pandemic if they were suspended or had to be out of class for an extended period of time due to an illness. But there will also likely be more COVID-era supports in place. “We are considering having after school programs with ESSER money,” Miller says. “That is one advantage that we'll have that we did not have in the past to help kids stay up to date if they do have to quarantine.”
At Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, students who have a long-term absence of more than four weeks would be moved to the district’s virtual academy, says Jeff McCoy, associate superintendent for academics. Students who are absent in the short term will continue to contribute to class through the class LMS.
Teachers will also have remote teaching options. “We can’t require it, but we do give our teachers the option also of live streaming their class,” McCoy says. “So if they know they've got two kids out on COVID quarantine, we do encourage them to live stream that class and kids can still participate in the class.”