Quarantine rules irk Louisiana school superintendents

Schools are quarantining disproportionately large numbers of students who aren’t sick

In this photo from June 30, a line for COVID-19 testing forms outside Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in New Orleans. On Tuesday, July 21, New Orleans Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis said there won't be any in-person instruction in the city's schools before September. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

Some Louisiana public school superintendents are asking state legislators to reduce the 14-day quarantine period that is required of students who come into close contact with someone on campus who tests positive for COVID-19.

The House Committee on Health and Welfare met Monday to discuss the Louisiana Department of Health’s emergency rule regarding quarantine procedures in public schools. The rule requires students, teachers and employees to isolate for 14 days when they are suspected of having had close contact for more than 15 minutes with another person on campus who tests positive for the virus.

The committee members had hoped to consult with health department experts and explore ways of reducing the quarantine requirement to 10 or 7 days in an effort to keep Louisiana’s children in school. However, the health department officials did not show up. In a letter to the committee, the department said it had to send its experts to work on more pressing assignments because of the recent alarming spike in COVID-19 numbers across the state.

On Saturday, Louisiana reported 3,085 new cases — the highest daily count since Aug. 2. There were 971 new cases reported Monday, but hospitalizations climbed to 1,012 — the highest number since Aug. 21.

Nevertheless, Rep. Michael Echols, R-Monroe, was angry that the health department didn’t send its experts to the committee meeting. 

“It’s an embarrassment to the state that they’re not here,” Rep. Echols said.

Some of the legislators said they’ve been fielding complaints from parents who say children are falling behind on their studies whenever they are sent home to quarantine. Furthermore, some school superintendents are complaining that they are forced to send home disproportionately large numbers of healthy students compared to very small positive case counts.

Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, said school-aged children are able to survive COVID-19 better than any other age group and should therefore be able to handle a higher risk of exposure.

“I just don’t see the need to keep kids home 14 days like that when they’re the least at risk for this,” Rep. Crews said. “For 0 to 19 year olds, your percent survival rate is 99.997 percent. So, you have 3 in 100,000 kids (die), and we’re shutting everything down for that?”

Crews pulled his data from a CDC report released in early September. More recent figures from the American Academy of Pediatrics indicate a 28-percent increase in child COVID-19 cases over the two-week period ending Nov. 19. Child hospitalization rates have likewise increased, but child deaths have largely remained stable — roughly 3 out of every 100,000 for Louisiana, according to the pediatrics group. Only 43 states report child-specific data.

“Is this a fair tradeoff?” Crews asked one of the superintendents. “In your estimation, is this really about the health and safety of the kids?” He later added: “This is not helping the kids’ safety and health. This is long-term detrimental to their education, long-term detrimental to their mortality, long-term detrimental to their social interaction.”

Wes Watts, superintendent of West Baton Rouge Parish Schools, said his system had to close an entire school Friday after seeing seven positive cases on campus. 

West Baton Rouge schools have a percent-positive rate of less than 1 percent of total students and less than 2 percent of teachers and staff, yet about 10 percent of students are being quarantined, Watts said.

Jeff Powell, superintendent of Rapides Parish Public Schools, told the committee that his parish school system has had 227 students test positive or about 1.14 percent of the 22,000 students enrolled. Nevertheless, Powell said, the schools have had to quarantine 4,072 students.

For every one student who tests positive in Rapides Parish schools, about 18 students are quarantined. The numbers are higher when a teacher catches the virus. Rapides has had 102 teachers test positive out of roughly 1,800 teachers — about 5.5 percent. So for every one teacher who contracts the coronavirus, 40 students are quarantined, Powell said.

“We just ask that this be opened back up,” Powell said, asking for details of the state’s quarantine policy to be reconsidered. “We want to follow the science. Our science, as the other superintendents have said, shows right now that all of these students who are quarantined are not testing positive…So we’re sending well students home who are missing an opportunity for the most effective educational situation that they can be in.”

Rep. Wayne McMahen, R-Minden, said he represents parishes with very poor broadband internet service, which makes virtual learning difficult for residents. “It’s a big problem when the kids go home,” McMahen said. “I think you can make a case for the fact that they’re probably safer in school because of the mitigation things that are in place than they are when they go home, take off the mask and play with the neighbors.”

Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, said the health department is actively studying and working on the quarantine policy to see if it can be reduced in a safe manner. 

“We’re following the recommendations of the CDC,” Miller said. “But also as we’re following it, we at the state and LDH is continuously to aggressively work in trying to decrease the 14-day quarantine that many of the superintendents have spoken about.”

The committee did not take any action on amending the quarantine rule Monday and will consider doing so at a future date when health department officials can attend.