PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s school-aged children had the highest case numbers among all residents in recent weeks, but the state is doubling down on its effort to maximize in-person schooling.
The state education department aligned itself with new recommendations for schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include shortening the isolation and quarantine duration for students and staff to five days, streamlining case investigation and contact tracing for students and staff, and waiving the requirement for a negative test result for close contacts to end quarantine.
The state’s schools will also implement the “Monitor to Stay” quarantine program for those students and staff who are not exempt from quarantine in order to maximize in-person learning.
“This will be part of the playbook,” education commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said in a virtual press conference Thursday. “This is part of the guidance that we have given to districts. And I don’t know any districts that haven’t implemented the playbook.”
Infante-Green added, “We are following the experts.”
Under the new rules, the state is recommending that districts have students and staff who either have or develop symptoms isolate at home and get tested.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, regardless of their vaccination status, should stay home and isolate for at least five days. Then, Infante-Green said, they may return to school on the sixth day if they don’t have symptoms or if their symptoms are improving and they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication. These students must wear a well-fitting mask for an additional five days at school, home, and with others.
Or, she said, these students will have to isolate at home until their symptoms are improving and they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours. They will need to wear a well-fitting mask at school and at home for the remainder of the 10-day period from symptom onset or specimen collection date if they are asymptomatic, said Infante-Green.
This new guidance will go into effect on Monday.
“The data, the evidence, that we have about this is evolving over time. The CDC has the best interest of the public in mind,” said Dr. Philip Chan, a medical consultant for the health department and professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.
Infante-Green said contact tracing efforts will be streamlined so schools are only identifying close contacts at schools and the health department will focus on shortened case interviews and identifying household contacts.
“[Students] will be able to stay in school because we have these mitigations in place. That’s why we encourage those in schools to get vaccinated,” said Infante-Green. “Students, teachers, and school staff should all get vaccinated.”
Students between 5 and 17 who are identified as close contacts are exempt from quarantine and should wear a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days if they don’t have symptoms and have completed their primary doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. If they develop symptoms, they should isolate at home and get tested, said Chan.
Students and staff without symptoms, who are identified as close contacts, and aren’t exempt from quarantine are encouraged to follow the Monitor to Stay quarantine protocol, which allows them to attend school in-person and participate in extracurricular activities during their quarantine period. They will need to conduct symptom screening and attest that they do not have symptoms for five days.
Athletic programs will have to continue current testing programs for all sports.
“It’s five days. That’s important for us to keep the kids in the classroom, and the teachers in the classroom as well,” said the commissioner.
Students and staff who have been identified as close contacts are exempt from quarantine if they don’t have symptoms, they’ve previously had COVID-19 less than 90s days ago or because they meet all the close contact exception criteria.
“I am completely reassured as a parent myself that our schools are safe,” said Chan, who has two children who go to school. “Our priority remains to keep schools open safely.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.