IN A SIGN Due to the ever-evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Public Health on Wednesday quietly updated its guidelines for educational institutions to no longer require children to self-quarantine if they are asymptomatic but exposed to COVID, even if not vaccinated.
The change in guidance will affect schools, camps and daycares, but will be particularly important for parents of children too young to be vaccinated, who have so far been subjected to frequent quarantines.
The new rules were applauded Thursday by some parents who have struggled for more than two years to balance work and childcare, but they also raised concerns from parents and childcare providers who worried about Security. The new guidance is likely to set in motion a new round of discussions between schools, child care providers and parents, as state guidelines are not binding and it will be up to institutions to decide how impose different policies.
The Executive Office of Education states that the change “better support programs to keep children in child care while maintaining the health and safety of families, children and staff.
The new guidelines indicate that children who are COVID-exposed and asymptomatic, regardless of location of exposure and regardless of vaccination status, should no longer be required to self-quarantine. These children should wear a mask for 10 days and it should be recommended, but not required, to be tested on days two and five after exposure.
Until now, unvaccinated students exposed to COVID outside of school were generally required to self-quarantine for five days, even after quarantine requirements for vaccinated children were lifted.
For children too young to be vaccinated, this meant regular absences from kindergarten. Quarantines eased this year when the state instituted a test-and-stay program for child care centers that allowed children exposed at school to stay in school and test themselves daily, but the regulations still caused many disturbances.
Quarantine guidelines have generally been more relaxed at K-12 schools after a review of the test-and-stay program ended contact tracing and allowed asymptomatic close contacts to remain at school without testing daily. But, in theory, unmasked and unvaccinated close contacts were still supposed to be quarantined.
Dr. Lloyd Fisher, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said eliminating quarantines for close contacts without symptoms makes sense, as it mirrors what workplaces are doing.
“People from other parts of society and the community are not quarantined because of their vaccination status at this point,” Fisher said, noting that vaccines are no longer as effective against asymptomatic or mild infections. .
Fisher said the decision had to be about weighing the risks of missing school against the benefits of quarantine. Especially in kindergartens, the risk of serious illness in young children is low. “The virus will continue to circulate. We know there will be ups and downs in cases…. these children can be close contacts time and time again and by excluding them from school we are really causing them such significant harm,” he said.
Also under the new rules, children who test positive for COVID must self-isolate for five days and then mask up for another five days, like the old guidelines. Children unable to mask may return after five days with a negative rapid test. Children are encouraged to use rapid home antigen tests. While these tests aren’t approved for children under two, state guidelines say they can be used “off-label.”
Several parents of young children said they believe the change is an important recognition of the stress parents have when children have to miss school due to exposure. “I hope this recognizes that it has been very, very difficult for parents of children under five to work and balance childcare for over two years now,” said Caitriona Fitzgerald, whose 4-year-old son attends a kindergarten in Wakefield. Her son was homebound for a few weeks due to classroom exposures before the school instituted the test and stay.
Last week, his son’s father contracted COVID and his son was again kept at home, although he remained healthy, as the test and stay only applies to exposures to school. Fitzgerald hasn’t heard whether her center will adopt the state’s new guidelines, but she thinks they make sense.
“Obviously you want to have the balance of public health, but it seems like often, depending on the extent of the close contact, there’s a low risk of the child getting it,” Fitzgerald said. “I am incredibly privileged. I worked from home, had a flexible job and a supportive boss, and it was always difficult. The weight of it is even more difficult for people who are hourly employees or who may not have such flexible bosses or jobs.
Andrew Farnitano, who works in public relations, said his 7-month-old daughter was home on Thursday due to exposure at her nursery in Dedham. She has no symptoms, but is due to stay home until Tuesday. This is the second time in two months that she has been at daycare that she has been quarantined for several days.
As the virus continues to spread but fewer people become seriously ill, Farnitano said society needs to evolve in how it handles COVID. “I think it seems reasonable to leave it up to parents to decide what is appropriate for their children, to judge whether they want to keep them at home or whether they need care,” Farnitano said. “It’s a struggle for me as a middle-class parent who can work from home to have to scramble and arrange childcare at the last minute. This is an impossibility for many workers who do not have this luxury.
But Parents’ reactions are not always straightforward. The Franklin daycare that Brittney Franklin’s 10-month-old attends adopted state guidelines as soon as they were released, and Franklin has mixed feelings. Since her son started daycare in January, he has had close contact and she had to take him to the pediatrician for a PCR test before he could return to school.
She is happy to be able to send him to school even though he is a close contact. But she worries about her health once all masking and testing requirements are lifted. “We’ve been so careful this whole time, so all these little kids are all in the same class together,” Franklin said. “We want to keep him in school but at the same time he is not vaccinated, he is in close contact with all the other children and teachers who are also unmasked.”
Some providers are concerned about the spread of COVID in their courses. Beth Sidel, a childminder at Montague, worries that decisions are driven by parents and economic concerns rather than science or the best interests of children. “If you are not vaccinated and exposed, you are more likely to carry the virus,” Sidel said. She said the children in her program had contracted COVID and if she let one exposed but asymptomatic child in, it could expose all the children.
At the Guild of Saint Agnes, a Worcester-based child care center with multiple locations, the organization plans to continue requiring parents to test their children daily for five days after exposure, with the center providing the tests. Deputy principal Sharon MacDonald said the agency continues to see asymptomatic children testing positive and is concerned about bringing exposed students back to school without testing. “We also need to be aware of at-risk employees,” MacDonald said.