We need to put an end to mass quarantines so teachers can teach and children can learn.
The school year has just started in America’s Sun Belt cities and hundreds of healthy students are already being quarantined at one Atlanta charter school, which disrupts their learning and forces overworked teachers to spend hours — hours they can’t spend addressing last year’s learning loss — chaotically putting together virtual lessons in order to accommodate students sent home.
Quarantining students or staff exposed to someone who has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection imposes high costs on school systems in terms of lost learning and staff resources. Parents are also forced to scramble to find child care or lose wages to take care of their children at home. Norway and Scotland won’t be quarantining close contacts next year and many U.S. school systems are thinking about scrapping the practice as well.
Quarantining close contacts is unsustainable — for students, teachers, and school staff. Adult staff can be vaccinated — and we may need to mandate staff vaccination — so it’s easy to address their contact with a positive case: simply allow vaccinated staff to do nothing, unless they display symptoms. But unvaccinated students are trickier, especially in secondary schools where transmission is more likely. Fortunately, there are three alternatives to mass quarantine of students.
The first is the simplest: we simply eliminate quarantine policies, notify parents when a positive case is found in a student’s classroom, and ask them to monitor their children for illness. If their children become symptomatic (i.e. sick), parents are told to keep them home until they are no longer symptomatic (i.e. healthy). Data from the United Kingdom is reassuring:
“Only 2–3 per cent of children sent home as a bubble contact of a confirmed case ended up testing positive, but antibody testing showed that many had been infected and fought off the virus without even noticing.”
In other words, most children exposed to the coronavirus in the school setting are either not infected or experience asymptomatic infection (i.e. no disease).
Eliminating quarantine and leaning into sick kids at home and healthy kids at school is a basic strategy that I suspect many U.S. school districts — especially those without the resources or technical capacity for mass testing — will ultimately move toward this year.