New and outdated pandemic policies still leave Maine families and students in education limbo
In the January 12 Maine CDC briefing, Director Dr. Nirav Shah announced another alteration to guidance for K-12 schools. Now, schools don’t have to trace close contacts of students if that close contact has had a COVID-19 vaccine booster, is 16 or 17 and “fully vaccinated,” the school is conducting pooled testing, or the school has a universal face-covering policy. Dr. Shah recognized that continuing contact tracing during the current Omicron infection wave would mount a severe “manpower issue” for schools.
This change came shortly after another change in policy from the federal CDC to shorten the recommended quarantine and isolation time from 10 days to five days for those who test positive for COVID-19. At the time, CDC Director Rachelle Walensky noted that the policy change “really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.”
No doubt that the change will help large businesses like Delta airlines, whose CEO reached out to the CDC to urge this policy change, as well as hospital systems struggling to keep staff on duty who are not infected. This led states like Maine and Rhode Island to issue advisories which allow hospitals to keep COVID-positive workers on the job if they are minimally-symptomatic and the facility is experiencing crisis-level care.
While the shortened isolation makes a lot of sense (and probably should have occurred 6 months ago, if not earlier), it has not led to policies which make life any more tolerable for kids attending school. Maine students still have to deal with all-day masking, socially-distanced lunch periods, and cancelled athletic and extracurricular events—if the school is open for in-person instruction at all.
Parents are told by public health officials that these so-called mitigation measures are effective when used all at once, despite not having shown clear evidence of effectiveness in stemming transmission on their own individually. Yes, even three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine is unable to stop the spread of the new Omicron variant of the virus.
The only accomplishment with this policy is weaving yet another layer into the tangled, confused web that is CDC guidance, leaving school administrators to pick up the pieces and try to make it all work within the guidelines.
This uncertainty has led to enormous learning loss nationally. Research from McKinsey & Co published in December suggests American students are four months behind in mathematics and three months behind in reading. Chronic absenteeism in schools has risen as well. Before the pandemic, about 8% of parents reported that their children were absent from school 15 days or more in a given year. That rate more than doubled last spring to 18%, and increased again in the fall to 22%.
Given another recent change in federal CDC policy which noted cloth masks offer the “least protection” of all masking options, shouldn’t all schools be exempt from contact tracing? Why wouldn’t contact tracing be a significant manpower issue for the schools which are masking as well, since we know that Omicron easily gets around flimsy cloth and surgical masks?
Don’t misunderstand this point, because many have. The answer to this policy is not to mandate high-end masks such as N95s, especially not for schoolchildren. In order for those to truly be effective, they must be “well-fitted,” so the air exchanged through the sides of the mask is sufficiently limited. The belief that children as young as 2—who are still subject to CDC mask guidance—must (attempt to) wear medical-grade masks for eight hours per day in order to guarantee a “safe” environment for teachers and staff, two years into the pandemic, amounts to borderline insanity.
An enormous survey last year measured levels of community transmission of COVID-19, based on local school mask policies. Contrary to popular belief, case rates were higher in mask-mandating schools than those with mask-optional policies.
So, why are we still subjecting students to these outdated, nonsensical rules? How long can state officials keep this up? What should scare parents is the CDC’s unwillingness to recognize that COVID mitigation measures are making students and teachers’ lives more difficult than necessary, especially in the face of a virus that cannot be stopped.
Thankfully, schools are not mandated to implement state guidelines, yet, state guidelines have been an easy fall-back for school administrators unwilling to step outside of the set of accepted policies. It would take another governor-declared state of emergency to require that schools implement a universal mask policy to open.
Though, in order to receive a massive infusion of federal funds via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), every school district must submit a plan detailing “the extent to which” it has adopted policies on each of CDC’s COVID-19 mitigation recommendations (masks, vaccination, hand-washing, respiratory etiquette, etc). While resisting unworkable and confusing CDC guidance does not preclude schools from receiving federal funds, it does make the task of writing and submitting the required 6-month periodic reports more tedious. Sadly, state policy exists to pressure schools to do what CDC wants, with promises to make their lives easier, to a point.
Parents and students need school leaders to chart a new path that respects family decision-making, and recognizes the vast amounts of data showing children, as well as vaccinated adults, are at extremely low risk of a severe case of COVID-19. This has been true for two years and is even more true today amid Omicron. It’s time school districts catch up to reality.