Texas students returned to class this week, just as the highly contagious omicron variant tore through the state.
One in three Texans taking COVID-19 tests are receiving positive results, foreshadowing what may be a large number of students – many of whom attend class unmasked, in large group settings – eventually getting the same results.
State health guidance prohibits students and staff with confirmed COVID cases from participating in class on campus. But exactly how long students should remain at home is not always clear.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the recommended quarantine time at the end of last year, advising people with coronavirus to isolate themselves for five days. If they are asymptomatic or their symptoms appear to be resolving, they can leave their quarantine after that period but must mask up around others for the following five days.
On Thursday, CDC echoed these recommendations in revamped health protocols for K-12 schools. The new guidance advises individuals who are not fully vaccinated and exposed to someone with COVID to stay home and quarantine from other people for at least five days after the close contact.
At least five days after the close contact, those exposed individuals without symptoms should test for coronavirus. If they test negative, they can leave quarantine but should continue wearing a well-fitting mask around others. If they test positive, they should isolate for at least another five days from their positive test.
CDC’s new school protocols now conflict with Texas’ health guidance, which was based on previous CDC recommendations.
Texas’ Department of State Health Services tells schools to exclude any child with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 from in-person class for at least 10 days and until they are fever free if they are symptomatic.
Asymptomatic children testing positive are also directed to stay home until at least 10 days after the day they were tested, DSHS officials recommend.
The Texas department is reviewing its guidance in light of the CDC update and is working with the Texas Education Agency, DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said. A TEA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on whether the agency was considering alterations to its guidance.
Adding to the confusion are varying school district policies.
Coppell ISD, for example, adopted CDC’s update, telling families that the district’s policy is to have individuals testing positive isolate for five days. Fort Worth ISD also updated its guidance in January to advise anyone testing positive, regardless of vaccination status, to stay at home for five days when testing positive.
Dallas ISD has yet to announce any changes to its quarantine policy, which follow the state guidelines.
Plano school officials instructed families in early January to “follow all isolation and quarantine guidelines from the local health authority or their physician.”
So how long should families keep their children home after a COVID scare?
Dr. Seth Kaplan, the immediate past president of the Texas Pediatric Society, said the CDC’s new quarantine guidance should be considered with nuance.
For instance, the rules apply differently if people are vaccinated. Also, children must wear a well-fitting mask should they exit their quarantine five days after exposure. Masks are not required in most Texas schools as Gov. Greg Abbott has prohibited such mandates via executive order.
If a family decides to follow the updated CDC guidance of the shortened quarantine, it must also follow the guidance of mask wearing, he stressed.
“If you test negative on day five and you’re willing to wear a mask, then returning seems reasonable,” Kaplan said.
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