State Education, Health Departments Release School COVID Guidelines
To address the rapidly spreading Delta variant of the COVID virus as schools prepare to begin 2021-22 classes, state school and health agencies have released their latest recommendations to keep students and staff safe.
The DPI recommends to school districts that all students older than 2 years and all school staff wear face masks at school regardless of vaccination status (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use). This is in alignment with the AAP, CDC, and DHS guidance for schools. While the agency is firm in its recommendations to layer safety measure in schools, they are not requirements and policy must be set in individual school districts.
“It’s a different epidemic, it’s a lot more contagious,” said one state health official in support of universal masking in schools that may have lifted requirements over the summer. “It calls for us to do as many things as we can do to keep people safe. Masks are the simplest and least invasive thing we can do.”
The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and Department of Health Services (DHS) guidance for the 2021-22 school year covers the prevention, investigation and control of COVID in K-12 schools. The agencies held a briefing August 5 on the statewide guidance. Watch the briefing.
The DHS states returning to in-person instruction for school-aged children and adolescents is a priority for the school year and notes the recommendations align with the CDC’s K-12 School Operational Strategy.
In an email to school district administrators announcing the guidelines, State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly said, “My advice is that if we want to keep our schools open to in person learning, we follow it. I know that there is a lot of pressure to waive and/or not enforce mask requirements, and perhaps for some local activities held outdoors that makes sense. But please remind people how quickly this variant spreads and it is highly contagious. The long-term consequences outweigh the minor inconvenience of masking. Our kids are counting on us to keep them safe, and our communities are counting on us to keep our buildings open.”
The preventative and mitigation guidance includes:
- Voluntary vaccinations among staff and eligible students are encouraged.
- In addition to the recommendation all students older than 2 years and all school staff wear face masks in school buildings and activities, including indoor athletics. Face masks are required on school buses, per a CDC order. Outdoor masking is not recommended unless in crowded conditions. DPI suggests outdoor mask breaks are part of every school day for all grades. DPI lists the following considerations for adopting a policy for universal mask use in school, regardless of vaccination status:
- a significant portion of the student population is not eligible for vaccination
- protection of unvaccinated students from COVID-19 and to reduce transmission
- lack of a system to monitor vaccine status among students, teachers and staff
- potential difficulty in monitoring or enforcing mask policies for those who are not vaccinated; in the absence of schools being able to conduct this monitoring, universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement, and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status
- possibility of low vaccination uptake within the surrounding school community
- continued concerns for variants that are more easily spread among children, adolescents, and adults, including the current Delta variant
- responding to community input that many teachers, staff, parents, or students would not participate in in-person learning if mask use was not universal.
- Social Distancing & Cohorts. Recommendations include:
- Students maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between each other in classrooms.
- Educators maintain at least 6 feet of distance between themselves and others.
- In cohorts, people should not be separated by those fully vaccinated and unvaccinated.
- Students should not be excluded from in-person learning to keep a distance requirement. If distancing cannot be achieved, other strategies should be employed.
- Staggered arrival/departure times and outdoor space for instruction are other options.
- A plan should be in place, with fully vaccinated people exempt from testing unless experiencing symptoms. Districts are encouraged to build support from students, parents, teachers and staff. Screening guidelines:
- Unvaccinated students – offer testing at least once a week in areas with moderate, substantial or high transmission levels. There are also specific guidelines for students involved in extracurricular activities. Find your community transmission level and vaccination coverage in your community.
- Unvaccinated staff – offer testing at least once a week regardless of transmission levels.
- The DPI recommends limiting nonessential visitors, volunteers and external groups with people who are not fully vaccinated into school buildings, especially in communities with moderate to high transmission rates.
- Staff Considerations. Recommendations include:
- Allow flexible, non-punitive and supportive paid sick leave policies and practices that encourage sick workers to stay home without fear of retaliation, loss of pay or loss of employment level and provide excused absences for students who are sick.
- For staff at higher risk, offer options such as modified job responsibilities, alternative or remote work locations, reassignment and physical distancing measures that that minimize their contact with students and other employees.
- Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
- Consider not requiring a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
- Staying Home/Getting Tested. Recommendations include:
- Encourage anyone with symptoms to stay home and get tested regardless of vaccination status.
- Testing for anyone with close contact to a positive case regardless of vaccination status.
- Quarantine anyone who is not fully vaccinated with a close contact.
- Fully vaccinated people with close contact but no symptoms do not need to quarantine but should get tested 3-5 days after and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days after exposure or until a negative test result.
- Two negative test results before allowing a student to return is not recommended.
- By law, suspected and confirmed outbreaks of COVID-19 in a school must be reported to the local health department as soon as they are recognized.
- Suspected outbreak in a school is defined as the presence of at least two laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the same school building, with onset dates within 14 days of each other.
- If two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 are identified in the facility with onset dates within 14 days of each other, and the public health investigation identifies an epidemiologic link between the illnesses and the school (e.g., close contact occurred at school, multiple illnesses in the same room, shared staff member among cases), the outbreak is then a confirmed COVID19 outbreak associated with the school.
- Role of teachers and staff in case of an outbreak:
- Detect cases and identify close contacts among students.
- Be alert to any students experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms.
- Collect information on absenteeism for early detection.
- Assist the local health department in identifying close contacts of cases in the classroom and other school-based activities.
- Role of schools and health departments in case of an outbreak:
- Whenever a probable or confirmed case of COVID-19 is identified, the local health department should begin case investigation with the school as soon as possible.
- Administration should notify families and all teachers and staff.
- If a teacher or staff member develops symptoms during the school day:
- Report illness to supervisor(s) and leave work as soon as possible.
- Clean the space.
- Maintain at least a 6-foot physical distance from others.
- Continue to wear a mask or face covering, if medically possible.
- Perform hand hygiene and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
- Seek medical evaluation, including COVID-19 or other relevant testing.
- Be prepared to provide a list of activities and close contacts.
When a student, or faculty/staff member can return to school or child care (Chart on pages 36-38)
What does close contact mean? (Chart on Page 51)
DPI resources for students with special healthcare needs (DPI Website)