ST. PAUL — Minnesota students who spend time around a coronavirus-infected person at school this fall may not miss any class time, even in schools where face masks are optional.
Many large districts have updated their quarantine policies following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health and education departments.
Unlike last school year, the CDC now says having close contact with an infected student — defined as 15 minutes within 6 feet over in a single day — does not warrant an extended absence from school, as long as both people were wearing well-fitting face masks.
“Where we looked at having to shift to distance learning a lot last year where we had a positive case in the classroom, I’m hoping to see much less of that,” said Mary Langworthy, health and wellness director for St. Paul Public Schools, which will start the school year with a mask mandate in effect for all students, staff and visitors.
Langworthy said quarantine should be necessary only for students who are exempt from wearing masks or for students who eat lunch with an infected peer. Assigned seating will help with contact tracing.
The rules are different for St. Paul staff who come in contact with an infected person; in accordance with CDC guidelines, mask-wearing won’t get them out of a quarantine, but full vaccination will.
New guidance motivates some districts
The new guidance has motivated some districts to implement a mask mandate in order to keep more students in school — especially given that most students won’t have access to the same level of remote instruction they did last year, when all districts were required to offer distance learning.
The Minnetonka school district last week switched from recommending masks to requiring them in elementary and middle schools. Officials said if virtually everyone’s wearing a mask, it’ll be a lot less work to track down students who are at risk of infection from a close contact.
“If you have a ‘strongly recommended,’ then that means we would have to monitor on a daily basis mask-wearing and compliance by every kid in every classroom,” Health Services Director Annie Lumbar Bendson said.
Amy LaDue, Minnetonka’s assistant superintendent for instruction, said limiting quarantines is important this fall because they won’t have much to offer students waiting out quarantine at home.
“At this point, we don’t have a great option to have kids livestreamed, on-demand,” she said.
Coronavirus health and safety protocols in Minnesota’s K-12 schools are voluntary this year because Gov. Tim Walz allowed his emergency powers to expire July 1.
The Minnesota Department of Education in late July recommended schools require face masks in most school settings, but school leaders get to choose whether they’ll follow that advice. The same is true of quarantine policies.
Several large districts, rather than adopting the public health recommendations, are passing those decisions onto parents. Of the state’s 15 largest school districts by enrollment:
- Nine are requiring masks for everyone at school. They include the Osseo district, where one sick kid last school year led to the quarantine of over 200 middle schoolers.
- Two districts will require masks only for students under 12 — who can’t yet get vaccinated — or in elementary and middle schools.
- Three have made face masks optional, and all three have elected not to follow the CDC guidance that calls for close-contact quarantines of up to 14 days.
- One district, Anoka-Hennepin, is tying its mask mandate to weekly infection rates in its two counties. If the rate of new cases inches up from where it is today, masks will be required for grades K-6.
Whether its mask mandate is in effect or not, Anoka-Hennepin is not requiring, or even recommending, quarantine for students who have contact with an infected person at school.
The state’s largest school district says it will “ask” infected people, as well as those who have a sick family member, to isolate for up to 10 days. But close contacts at school won’t have to quarantine, spokesman Jim Skelly confirmed; he did not respond to requests for an interview about that decision.
Lakeville, which also did not respond to interview requests, isn’t calling for quarantines following school exposure, either.
“Students/staff in close contact to a positive case will not be required to quarantine. We recommend families monitor (their) students for symptoms and test after exposure to a positive case for the health of others,” its policy reads.
Other districts without mask mandates will encourage, but not require, parents to keep their children home if they are identified as close contacts. In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, quarantine is “strongly recommended.” In Elk River, it’s “strongly encouraged.”
Minnesota Department of Education spokeswoman Ashleigh Norris emphasized that their guidance reflects “recommendations and best practices, not requirements,” and that schools should use multiple strategies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Proactive COVID-19 prevention strategies are critical to protect people — including students, teachers, and staff — who are not fully vaccinated or who have certain medical conditions, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission,” she said by email.
“While there are no longer mandates that schools follow this guidance, the guidance represents the most current science-based best practices for safe in-person learning.”