Questions remain after Utah implements 'modified quarantine' guideline for schools

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Utah state guidelines allow students and staff to attend school, even after a recent exposure to COVID-19. (Photo: KUTV)

Utah state guidelines allow students and staff to attend school, even after a recent exposure to COVID-19.

Parents will decide whether or not to send their children as long as the student does not have symptoms, and no one in their immediate family has tested positive for the virus.

State health officials said the plan for “modified quarantine” is a way to keep more students and staff in schools, but it also raises a lot of questions about what is safest for students and for their teachers.

Dr. Sankar Swaminathan is a professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah. He said the standard procedure is to isolate for 14 days after an exposure to someone with COVID-19, “modified quarantine” is not what is routinely done.

“The reason for this policy is to attempt to keep the schools open. How that’s going to work out remains to be seen,” Swaminathan said.

State health officials say they used the modified quarantine for essential employees, like in grocery stores and hospitals, and it worked.

“Only if you think that physicians are the same as 7-year-old children,” he said.

Swaminathan said it is extremely important for children to be in school for education and development, but they aren’t the same as essential employees. For one, most transmission of the virus happens when a person isn’t showing symptoms, and younger kids are less likely in general to have symptoms when they get the coronavirus.

Also, the essential employees they are being compared to often had more resources, protective gear — and weren’t children.

“I think it’s completely inappropriate to say that it’s safe for doctors to go back to work because they have to go, and the same conditions apply to children. Clearly, they do not,” Swaminathan said.

He said the risk to children from contracting COVID-19 is small. The quarantine is necessary not so much to protect their health, but to prevent outbreaks and transmission to other students and teachers.

And while some studies have shown that children are not the drivers of transmission, those studies were done when children were home.

“So yes, children didn’t drive epidemics when the schools were closed, but their effect on community transmission and transmission back to the home really remains to be seen.”

He also points out that Utah’s COVID-19 numbers show the state is not ready to relax restrictions.

“It’s essentially a large-scale experiment for which we don’t know what the result will be,” he said.

Swaminathan said something that would help all of this is routine testing, but it’s not feasible at this point. The test is invasive, especially for younger kids. Also, the results take so long to come back that it doesn’t help as much in preventing the spread — especially if people aren’t actually quarantining after exposure.

There is also some confusion over balancing these new state guidelines with local county guidelines.

Tess Horntin has students in high school and middle school, and works in an elementary school herself. She said she believes kids learn best in school, and her kids want to be in school, but she thinks these plans have been rushed. She fears the modified quarantine plan could land all students back home in a few months.

“It’s confusing at its core to parents, to understand, 'are my kids going to school with people who have been exposed but are not symptomatic? Does that jive with the county? Who’s really in charge?'” said Hortin.

She said the rationale that kids are less likely to die from COVID-19 doesn’t ease her fears — one death is not worth it — and that’s not even considering the teachers and staff, and their families, who are left more exposed.