North Carolina relaxes COVID school quarantine and contact tracing rules

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North Carolina health officials are changing COVID-19 guidelines to reduce the number of healthy students and teachers who must stay home after being exposed to the virus.

New guidelines released Thursday as part of the NC Strong Schools Toolkit indicate that individual contact tracing and exclusion from school of asymptomatic people after identified exposure to COVID-19 is no longer recommended across the country. State in K-12 schools.

The state Department of Health and Human Services toolkit recommends that schools no longer require students and school employees to stay home after exposure unless they have been tested positive or show no symptoms.

“Our goal has always been to keep kids in the classroom,” DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley said in an interview Thursday. “We are constantly evolving our guidance in the Strong Schools Toolbox to be responsive to the latest scientific advances.”

With widespread access to the COVID-19 vaccine now available, Kinsley said updates to the guidelines were the right decision to make at this time. The changes won’t go into effect until February 21.

What the mask guidelines say

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A school employee helps a young student with his mask at Carpenter Elementary School in Cary on Thursday morning August 19, 2021. Students in North Carolina will begin their third school year in the face of the coronavirus pandemic just as the highly contagious delta variant is spreading rapidly across the state. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The changes come the same day NC House Speaker Tim Moore sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper and Kinsley urging them to change DHHS guidelines he says are disrupting the school and hindering student success. .

“Please repeal guidelines that require healthy children to stay home and effectively mandate masks in schools,” Moore wrote in her letter.

Moore had cited how several state governors announced this week that they were lifting their statewide school mask mandates. North Carolina does not have a statewide school mask mandate, but Moore said DHHS guidelines lead most school districts to continue requiring face masks.

Currently, 79 of the state’s 115 school districts require face masks.

Kinsley said the changes took days and were not in response to Moore’s letter.

DHHS now says schools should require people ages 2 and older to wear face masks in areas where there is high or substantial transmission of COVID-19, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All 100 counties currently have high or substantial transmission.

This is a slight change in wording from previous recommendations that schools only consider making masks optional when they are in an area with low or moderate transmission of COVID-19.

“Vaccines are the most important tool first, and masking second is important and a proven strategy for reducing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping children in the classroom,” Kinsley said. “As long as community transmission is high, (masking) should remain in effect.”

Contact tracing is no longer recommended for schools

The end of contact tracing comes after school districts complained about the extra work being put on them to identify people potentially exposed to the virus at school.

The Union County School Board, which has had a mask-optional policy all school year, voted last week to end all contact tracing and quarantine requirements. Union County, southeast of Charlotte, hopes other districts will follow its lead on the issue.

DHHS had threatened legal action against Union County when it attempted something similar earlier in the school year. But on Thursday, DHHS said contact tracing in schools had become less effective in reducing the spread of the virus.

“There are more effective tools to limit the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the risk of COVID-19 than contact tracing,” Kinsley said. “This (omicron) variant is spreading rapidly. The incubation period is short. There is more than one time period where potential for asymptomatic spread is possible.

Keeping students healthy at school

One of the complaints about past DHHS guidelines is that it led to healthy students missing too many days of school because they were identified as potentially exposed to the virus.

“At the time, these were the right steps based on the information we had,” Kinsley said. “As we learn more about the variant, we remain nimble and we all keep moving forward to live with this virus.”

DHHS has reduced quarantine requirements over time. Kinsley said school exclusion has always been a last resort and that excluding asymptomatic people is not an operationally effective way to reduce the spread of the virus.

This story was originally published February 10, 2022 3:52 p.m.

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T. Keung Hui has been covering K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. Its primary focus is Wake County, but it also covers statewide education issues.

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