Our View: Should schools shorten students’ COVID-19 quarantines?

joliet township high school district 204, education, jths

Thousands of students have been excluded from school across northern Illinois this year because they sat on the bus, at lunch or in a classroom next to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The reason makes sense: To limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

But it’s not without cost – to the students who have to temporarily switch to remote learning, the quality of which isn’t always the best, and to families who suddenly have to figure out child care while juggling work, other kids and their commitments, and just everything else.

The students are being short-changed of quality education and socialization while in quarantine for weeks at a time. And teachers also are missing the important connection with their class.

Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Department of Public Health recently announced they were lessening the quarantine requirements for students from 14 days to 10 after determining that only 1.6% of CPS students tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed to the virus at school, the Chicago Sun-Times reported last week. Of the 15,500 CPS students sent to quarantine so far this school year, only 248 have later tested positive for COVID-19, school officials said.

We’ve been asking many county health departments throughout northern Illinois about what they’re seeing in terms of the number of students quarantined and how many of them end up testing positive for COVID-19. It’s not information we’ve been able to get.

The McHenry County Department of Health, for example, said it does not have this statistic available as it is “unreliable,” spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said. She said some parents are choosing not to participate in the quarantine options – which offer opportunities to return to school sooner with negative COVID-19 tests – and some that do opt out later.

It’s understandable that it would be more difficult for local health departments to track this kind of information – while CPS is huge, it’s still one school district working with one health department – but if other local health departments are not tracking it, they should start.

More information is valuable. And if that information tells us we can shorten quarantines and keep more kids in school longer, then we should do so.

If anything, this pandemic has taught us how to adapt as new and better information becomes available.

When masks were in short supply and it wasn’t clear how much they helped limit spread, public health officials advised against wearing them. When they became more available and the level of prevention they provide became clearer, that guidance changed. We know now masks keep you safer and help stop the spread of the virus.

It’s frustrating when it seems like the rules are always changing. But new information that tells us that kids don’t need to quarantine as much as they did before would be welcome news.