BOSTON — As parents weigh whether to send children back to school and districts deliberate how to safely bring back students, 25 Investigates reviewed the state’s protocols for preventing and containing the transmission of COVID-19 in schools, if and when they reopen.
Investigative reporter Ted Daniel read the 19-page document recently issued by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which lays out the response and steps schools need to follow in the event of a suspected or positive COVID-19 case arises, and breaks it down for parents.
First, all schools must have an action and communication plan should a student or teacher show symptoms or tests positive for the virus. Schools must also follow strict disinfecting and sanitizing protocols should a positive case arise.
If a student shows coronavirus symptoms at school, he or she will be evaluated by the school nurse or other medical point of contact. The student will be placed in a designated medical waiting room. “There is no specific capacity limit for the medical waiting room, but all students in the medical waiting room must be as far apart as possible, and no less than 6 feet. Strict mask-wearing covering the nose and mouth at all times for every person in the room must be enforced. Students can work on individual schoolwork or other activities while in the medical waiting room,” according to the document.
If a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19 they must notify their school immediately. They’ll be required to isolate at home for a minimum of ten days and “until at least three days have passed with no fever and improvement in other symptoms.” The protocol goes on to say that " Repeat testing prior to return is not recommended. Return to school should be based on time and symptom resolution.”
Schools are required to notify any individuals who may have had close contact with the positive individual. A close contact is anyone who was “within less than 6 feet of COVID-19 case for at least 10-15 minutes…while the case was symptomatic or within the 48 hours before symptom onset.” Close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case should expect a call from a contact tracer and will be asked to get tested.
Due to privacy rules, the names of students or teachers who test positive will not be shared, not even with their close contacts. Close contacts then have two options before they are allowed to return to school. They “will need to have one negative test result and not be showing any COVID-19 symptoms, or if they do not wish to be tested, quarantine at home for 14 days,” reads the document.
Protocols are also in place in cases where multiple students or staff get sick. A portion of the document is dedicated to in-school transmission, where the virus spreads beyond one classroom or one group of kids. If that happens, school administrators are supposed to consult with their local health department. The options include closing part of the school, the entire school or even the district for extensive mitigation.
Finally, the document makes it very clear that it is the school’s duty to provide remote learning for students who either need to quarantine or isolate for any extended period time.
Should Massachusetts or a municipality experience a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, DESE along with health authorities will determine whether in-person school should continue.
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