MANSFIELD -- Since the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, administrators have fought an uphill battle to keep students in school.
Some school districts implemented mask requirements, which allow asymptomatic close contacts to continue attending school. Under current guidelines from the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), close contacts do not have to quarantine if their school has a mask mandate for students and staff, maximized physical distancing and documented COVID-19 prevention policies.
Elsewhere in Ohio, schools are taking a different approach. In Warren County, school districts partnered with the local health department and ODH for a quarantine pilot program. Schools began the Test & Stay pilot program on varying days the week of Sept. 27.
The program allows students who are exposed to COVID-19 at school but show no symptoms to continue attending in-person classes during their quarantine period.
In order to stay in school, the close contact student has to mask up for a temporary period, regardless of whether or not the school has a mask mandate.
Asymptomatic close contacts who choose to participate in the pilot can select one of two options: wear a mask to school for ten days after exposure or wear a mask to school for seven days after exposure and take two rapid COVID-19 tests. Students who choose the latter are tested three days after exposure and again between five and seven days after exposure. If they tests negative both times, they can discontinue mask wearing after seven days. If a student tests positive at any point, they had to stay home.
Families can also choose not to participate in the pilot and observe a traditional quarantine.
After almost a month, Supt. Tom Isaacs of the Warren County Educational Service Center reported positive results.
Isaacs told the Dayton Daily News that the program allowed 261 healthy students to continue attending school during the first ten days of the program.
Only seven of those students ended up testing positive for COVID-19, but contact tracing found that none of those students contracted COVID-19 in school.
The Warren County Board of Commissioners also partnered with the schools on the provide by allocating some of its federal COVID-19 relief dollars to hire school nurses. The test-to-stay pilot meant more students getting tested at school, increasing the need for personnel across the county.
ODH regularly provides school districts with rapid COVID-19 tests.
Andrea Moyer, director of school improvement at Mansfield City Schools, said the testing has helped reduce COVID transmission and quarantines in the district. Mansfield City Schools does not have a test-to-stay policy in place, but does provide COVID-19 tests to families that need them.
Moyer said the district has gone through “hundreds” of COVID-19 tests since the beginning of the school year.
Families who request kits often do so after a suspected exposure outside the classroom.
“In a lot of our cases, one of the parents or some relative or somebody outside of school has been positive,” she said.
Test-to-stay programs are gaining popularity across the United States. Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education now allows asymptomatic close contacts to stay in school if they wear a face mask for 14 days and receive at least three negative rapid COVID-19 tests in the first week after exposure.
The CDC said it views test-to-stay as a “promising practice” and is working to evaluate the strategy. However, its website defines test-to-stay as a combination of regular testing, contact tracing and other prevention strategies like universal masking.
School districts in Knox County recently adopted a similar modified quarantine procedure, but without the testing component.
Under new guidance from Knox Public Health, symptom-free students can continue attending in-person classes if they wear masks indoors or when unable to physically distance themselves from others.
The modified quarantine guidelines apply to class time only; students still have to observe a quarantine period from extracurricular activities like sports, band and social clubs.
In order to opt in to the new policy, Knox County school districts demonstrate a plan to monitor the symptoms and mask-wearing observance of students attending school during quarantine. All of Knox County’s six school districts have indicated that they have or will soon submit the plans required to adopt the modified quarantine procedures. Families can still choose to quarantine their children after exposure if a district opts into the modified procedure. Parents of students identified as close contacts in a school setting will be informed of the known exposure.
No exemptions, religious or otherwise, can be made to get out of wearing a mask during a quarantine period.
Amy Schmidt, Director of Nursing at Richland Public Health, said the agency will not change its guidance until the Ohio Department of Health does.
“Richland Public Health's current policy is still the ODH K-12 Quarantine school guidance,” she said. “At the state level, there is discussion regarding potential quarantine alternatives and processes. Warren County has been monitored and evaluated by the Ohio Department of Health as they conduct a pilot program on quarantine alternatives. We will make any necessary changes in guidance once adopted by ODH.”
However, Schmidt confirmed that school districts can adopt policies outside of RPH’s guidance if they choose.
The Madison Local School District does not have a general mask mandate in place for students and staff, but asymptomatic students can continue attending in-person classes and wear a mask for their quarantine period.
“I think it's working very well," Supt. Rob Peterson said. "If every child who was identified as a close contact had been quarantined and not allowed to return to school, it would have been 1,700 students (since the start of the school year.) Probably within that 1,700, there would have been some repeat students.”