Officials hope the changes will combat learning loss by keeping more kids in school.
In an effort to reduce the number of K-12 students missing school because they were in close contact to a classmate with COVID-19, officials are updating quarantine protocols. The definition of a close contact in a school setting has changed from within 6 feet for 15 minutes to within 3 feet for 15 minutes.
Test-to-stay protocols are also being extended to extracurricular activities instead of only applying to the school day. The governor first announced the test-to-stay program three weeks ago. During a press conference this afternoon, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said updating quarantine protocols is a way to balance the needs of the students with the needs of public health.
“Children are suffering from not being in class. They have the psychological issues, they have the learning issues, and so we think this is a safe alternative at this time,” Romero said.
The Arkansas Department of Health will continue to monitor positive cases in public schools and if those numbers increase, Romero said ADH will recommend to the governor that they return to the six feet guidelines. ADH reported 1,080 active cases in schools today. That’s a decline of 261 cases from Thursday’s report.
The decision to change quarantine protocols was prompted by a meeting with school superintendents requesting ways to address education loss. Rep. Brian Evans, a Republican from Cabot, helped organize the meeting which Dr. Romero attended as well.
Cabot Public Schools superintendent Tony Thurman said the revision is a “game changer” because it will battle learning loss for students and allow parents to continue working instead of staying home to watch their quarantined kids. It will also assist stressed teachers by allowing them to provide in-person instruction, which is the most efficient mode of teaching, he says.
“While we’re extremely proud of this flexibility moving to three feet on the [probable close contact] criteria, we do understand if there is an increase in cases we will go back to the six feet so we must remain vigilant,” Thurman said.
The updated quarantine protocol only applies to K-12 schools and will not affect daycare centers, childcare centers of higher education institutions.
There are other ways to avoid quarantine such wearing a mask. Quarantine is not required when both the student who tests positive and the close contact are wearing face coverings. An Arkansas law prohibiting mask mandates is being challenged in court, so for now, school districts have the option to require masks, but not all do. The Cabot School District, for example, updated its face covering policy Oct. 13 to state masks are now “highly recommended,” not required.
Additionally, students who have a recent, physician diagnosed case of COVID-19 (within the last 19 days), are considered to have immunity and do not have to quarantine. However, the best way to avoid quarantine is vaccination, Romero said.
The rate of vaccination has stalled among Arkansans 12 to 18 years old. About 50 percent have received one dose and nearly 40 percent are fully immunized. Romero expects vaccines will be available for children 5 to 11 years of age available at the beginning of next month.
More information about COVID-19 vaccines is available on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website.