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Louisiana Public Schools Can Now Decide Whether Or Not To Mandate COVID Quarantines

Students at Red River Elementary in Coushatta, Louisiana work on a reading comprehension exercise. June 8, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz/WWNO
Students at Red River Elementary in Coushatta, Louisiana work on a reading comprehension exercise. June 8, 2021.

Some Louisiana parents may soon be able to decide whether to keep their child at home or send them to back to school if they're exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom.

Louisiana's Department of Education released guidance Wednesday afternoon allowing local school districts to make quarantine for students identified as "close contacts" optional.

“We can no longer ignore the unintended academic consequences of our students unnecessarily missing school,” State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said in a statement announcing the policy change. “This new, common-sense option empowers parents and local communities with the authority to make health-related decisions for their students.”

The new policy is at odds with guidance from state and federal health officials and has already received significant pushback from Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state's department of health, according to The Advocate.

Quarantines have been widespread since the school year began, and some of the state’s larger systems have reported several thousand cases each week. Under the state's current quarantine standards, a student identified as a “close contact” must quarantine for some period of time though the duration varies depending on several factors including the student's vaccine status.

Brumley said Louisiana school districts can decide whether to implement a “parent choice option,” and allow families to decide whether and for how long to quarantine their child at home. As part of the policy, parents will also have access to no-cost COVID testing, though participation is voluntary.

“The parent choice option in no way alters the process school systems use to handle a student that tests positive for COVID,” the Louisiana Department of Education said in a press release announcing its decision. “If a student develops symptoms of the virus or tests positive, the student should isolate until they have recovered and are determined to no longer be infectious.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued modified quarantine guidance for K-12 schools, but only when the necessary conditions are met.

“In the K–12 indoor classroom setting or a structured outdoor setting where mask use can be observed, the close contact definition excludes students who were between 3 to 6 feet of an infected student if both the infected student and the exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time,” the guidance says.

The exception only applies to students and not teachers, staff or other adult visitors.

"I think this is a bad call," Joseph Kanter, the state's health director, told The Advocate. "I think it is dangerous. I think it is going to put kids at risk."

New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. also blasted the guidance in a statement.

“The Louisiana Department of Education’s decision flies in the face of the data, the science, and the sound advice of our health and medical advisors when it comes to protecting our students and educators amid the latest surge in this pandemic," Lewis said.

Masks are mandatory in Louisiana public schools, and Edwards recently extended his indoor mask mandate until the end of October.

While COVID cases and hospitalizations have trended downward in recent weeks, health officials have warned that transmission rates are still high across the state.

On Wednesday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 1,048 COVID-19 cases and said 30% of cases were identified in children 17 years of age and younger.

Across the state’s 69 school districts, COVID policies vary widely. It remains unclear just how many districts will institute the new “parent choice option.”

Some school and local leaders have publicly pushed back on the mask mandate, and few systems have opted into the state’s school-based surveillance testing initiative. Before the storm, just 10 of the state’s 64 parishes had agreed to test students for COVID regularly.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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