In-Depth: Why San Diego Unified School District is struggling with modified quarantine

Distance learning
Posted at 7:24 PM, Sep 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-22 09:49:51-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- San Diego Unified’s district physician says an experimental alternative to home quarantine is keeping more students in classrooms following a COVID-19 exposure, but it’s also posing daunting administrative burdens for school staff.

As of Sept. 15, about 550 San Diego Unified students were in quarantine after close contact with a person who tested positive, said district spokesman Michael Murad.

Typically, those students would complete an up to 10-day quarantine at home, but the district was able to keep some of the students in class under a new framework from the state called modified quarantine.

Murad could not immediately say how many of the roughly 550 students were on modified quarantine and how many were sent home. District physician Dr. Howard Taras estimated a few hundred students had participated in modified quarantines during the first few weeks of school.

“It was designed to keep students in school, and I think it is doing that,” Taras said.

Modified quarantine allows unvaccinated students to remain in school after an exposure under certain conditions. The exposure must have occurred at school, with everyone involved consistently wearing masks. Going forward, the exposed student has to undergo twice-weekly testing and stay masked.

Students on modified quarantine are allowed to attend class as they would normally, but they are barred from extracurriculars and after-school programs like sports.

“The idea is that if the initial exposure occurred in the classroom and you remain in that classroom, you’re not adding any other additional children to the equation,” Taras said.

Vaccinated students without symptoms do not have to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure, but they are encouraged to get tested.

Taras said the state designed the modified quarantine framework to strike a balance between continuity of classroom instruction and safety. Still, the first few weeks of school have revealed significant technical challenges.

“All school districts in San Diego County are struggling with this,” said Taras. “It is a bit of a logistical nightmare.”

School staff must sort through a complicated web of testing and notification requirements, Taras said. Since the state bases the twice-weekly testing requirement on a student’s date of exposure, staff members sometimes have to generate different testing schedules for students within the same cluster.

Several of California’s largest school districts have delayed offering a modified quarantine option, instead opting to send exposed children home regardless of masking or vaccination status. ABC 10News reviewed nine large California districts and found four do not offer modified quarantine: Long Beach Unified School District, Oakland Unified School District, San Francisco Unified School District and Santa Ana Unified School District.

San Francisco Unified said the framework was too impractical with their current staffing and supply of COVID tests. Additionally, the district said it did not have the capability to verify that children on modified quarantine refrained from after-school programs and activities.

The Oakland Unified School District recently announced it would no longer offer modified quarantines for high school students.

By contrast, Los Angeles Unified, which reported about 6,500 students in isolation after one week of school, said last week it would begin offering modified quarantine for unvaccinated students.

“There is an incredible amount of variability, both within California districts and then also across the country,” said Bree Dusseault, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

Other states like Illinois, Kansas, and Massachusetts are experimenting with similar approaches, often called test-to-stay programs.
Some of these programs allow exposed students to stay in class even if they were unmasked as long as they undergo more frequent testing, Dusseault said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it “does not have enough evidence” to support the modified quarantine approach. The agency said it was working with districts that were experimenting with the framework to gather more data.

Instead, the CDC recommends unvaccinated students found to be close contacts quarantine at home after exposure for up to 14 days. The caveat, however, is that the agency does not consider students a “close contact” if they were consistently and properly masked, regardless of vaccination status.

The CDC does not attach a testing requirement like California does.

“It’s not just local to California. Really across the country, far fewer districts are following the CDCs guidelines than I think we would have expected,” said Dusseault, whose group routinely surveys 100 large districts nationwide.

It is common for districts to exempt vaccinated students from quarantine, but few exempt masked students, she said.

In California, the state Department of Public Health outlines quarantine policy. Dr. Taras said the district had a legal obligation to follow guidance from state health officials but no such obligation to follow recommendations from the CDC.

In other states, districts might diverge from CDC guidance out of concerns about practicality or a desire to err on the side of caution, Dusseault said.

“In a quarantine, what you find is you’re really balancing two equally important things: student safety with students’ access to learning,” she said. “That would be an example of a district saying, ‘We’re going to really put safety first.’”

However, some school districts are moving to prioritize in-class learning. In Florida, seven of the eight school districts reviewed by the Center on Reinventing Public Education set quarantines between two and five days, well below the CDC's recommendation.

Most quarantine periods in California are between 10 and 14 days. San Diego Unified offers an option to shorten a quarantine to 7 days with a negative test.

As the school year stretches on and districts experiment with different approaches, Dusseault said they need to prepare for the possibility that kids have to be quarantined more than once.

In San Diego, which sets a 10-day quarantine, two exposures could lead to 20 days of missed school, the definition of chronic absenteeism. “Chronic absenteeism in a normal school year is a really big deal. The state gets involved,” Dusseault said.

What worries Dusseault most is that many districts have not spelled out a plan to keep kids learning during home quarantines.

San Diego Unified outlines a commitment to enroll students in an online learning platform, but many districts have not released any plans, according to Dusseault. Five of the nine California districts the group reviewed had no publicly available plans for continuity of instruction.