NEW PROTOCOLS: BCSC considers new COVID-19 state recommendations

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Superintendent Jim Roberts, left, and Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. School (BCSC) Board President Jeff Caldwell listen to Tiffany Kapczynski speak out in favor of fully opening schools for in-person schooling during a BSCS school board meeting to discuss and vote on a school reopening plan in the BCSC Administration Building in Columbus, Ind., Monday, July 20, 2020.  Mike Wolanin | The Republic

COLUMBUS, Ind. — Local school officials are trying to figure out how to balance new COVID-19 recommendations from the state — along with allocations of test kits and PPE — with their goal of returning all students to in-person learning.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Superintendent Jim Roberts talked about the state updates during this week’s school board meeting, but also emphasized BCSC was not yet ready to implement any new policies based on the recommendations.

BCSC needs to have conversations with the school board, the Columbus Educators’ Association, school principals and local medical professionals about these potential changes, he said.

“It is important that our Bartholomew County Health Department also review this information and give us some insight as to where they might stand,” he said.

At a recent press conference, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the state would no longer require quarantines and contact tracing in instances where students and teachers “remain at least 3 feet apart and are wearing a mask at all times in just the classroom.”

The state department of health also noted in its online resources for schools that students should be facing forward while in class.

Box said that this decreased distance does not apply to other school settings where students gather (such as at lunch or during extracurriculars), or in classrooms where masks are removed.

The state’s reasoning appears to be geared toward lowing the number of close contacts, Roberts said. Implementing this policy wouldn’t necessarily be a major change to how BCSC implements social distancing, he said.

BCSC has been using the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that a 3- to 6-foot range can be used as appropriate social distancing in some situations.

However, implementing the state’s recommendation would change how BCSC conducts its contact tracing.

The school’s definition of a close contact is someone who has been exposed to a positive case at a distance of less than 6 feet for 15 minutes or more. Roberts told school board members that the school corporation has measured the time cumulatively.

The school cabinet’s initial response to the state’s recommendation was to suggest that close contacts for students and staff be defined as “less than 3 feet apart for 15 minutes or more (cumulative) in the classroom setting.” In classroom cases where individuals were more than 3 feet apart and masked at all times, quarantines and contact tracing would not be required.

However, as the state said, this policy would not apply to other situations, particularly those where students are unmasked, such as athletics.

Quarantine times

The state also provided recommendations about quarantining, with Box recommending the 14-day quarantine as the “safest option.”

The state recommended the following alternatives for close contact cases:

A 10-day quarantine if the individual never developed symptoms

A seven-day quarantine if the individual never developed symptoms and a negative PCR nasal swab test is conducted on day five, six or seven, or a negative rapid antigen test is conducted upon return to school on day eight.

She added that in both cases, the individual should wear a mask at all times upon their return.

The shortened quarantine times are based off guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roberts noted that these guidelines were first released by the CDC in December. According to information posted by the state department of health at that the time, Box also said then that 10-day quarantines were an option for individuals without symptoms.

BCSC is currently using the 14-day quarantines, Roberts said. School cabinet members have suggested adopting a policy that an individual would be able return to school after a 10-day quarantine if they never developed symptoms.

Upon their return, the individual would have to wear a mask at all times and maintain 6 feet of distance while eating. If the individual could not wear a mask at all times, the 14-day quarantine would remain in place.

BCSC is not looking at the seven-day quarantine option at this time, Roberts said.

Decisions about contact tracing and quarantine times will need to be balanced with decisions about the school corporation’s learning model, Roberts said.

“As we’re trying to get students back to school, it seems odd to reduce the number of days that people are getting quarantined or even the number of feet that you would consider close contacts,” he said.

On Thursday, the school corporation announced that it would take a “phased approach” to returning secondary students to full-time in-person learning, with middle schoolers returning the week of Feb. 22, and high schoolers returning the week of March 22.

While elementary schools returned to offering in-person learning on Jan. 5, secondary schools have been utilizing a hybrid model in the same period. Virtual options remain in place.

Rapid tests and other supplies

The school corporation is also considering how to use the COVID-19 supplies it receives from the state.

The state is sending Indiana schools hand sanitizer, more than 1 million KN95 masks for teachers and staff, and about 600,000 masks for children in grades K-6.

In addition, the state is sending BinaxNOW antigen test cards to schools to help them test symptomatic individuals, with each school receiving 120 tests.

The rapid tests that pose the most questions to BCSC, Roberts said.

The presence of test kits in schools might encourage individuals to come to school with symptoms because they know that testing is available, Roberts said.

School board president Jill Shedd also acknowledged that this was a possibility.

“We all know there are so many families and students that rely on the schools to feed them, to take care of them,” she said. “So I have to infer, from that, that we’re also the health care, if you will, for them.”

Roberts also noted that a major question is how to use the tests wisely.

“At the building level, if I have 120 kits to give, and I have staff and students coming into now the nurse’s office, what discretion does that nurse use, as to who gets that?” Roberts said. “That’s where our anxiety is. … We know that students do come to school with symptoms. We don’t want to encourage that, though.”

He noted that there will be a set of PPE for each test that is given, so the nurse would be able to utilize that once while administering the test and then throw it away.

Roberts said there’s also the question of whether to send home an individual who tested negative but nevertheless experienced symptoms.

One possible policy might be for nurses to administer tests primarily for staff only, but he noted this still raises the same questions and potential problems.

“We’re just not comfortable yet with giving a test in the school building to our students and staff,” Roberts said.

If the school corporation decides to administer tests for students and/or staff, it will need protocols that determine how tests are used. He also said that BCSC would need to ensure that individual buildings don’t have “too much discretion” about who gets tested and when.

Box said if schools choose not to use their tests, they should give them to the local health department. Roberts acknowledged this as a possibility, and Shedd said it would be a good alternative.

As for the other supplies, Roberts said that the masks for elementary students would be added to the supply they already have.

In regards to the masks being sent for staff, he said that BCSC isn’t necessarily prepared to require the use of KN95 masks, as “we have gotten this far this way.”