The Jefferson County Board of Education voted Tuesday evening against cutting the COVID-19 quarantine and isolation period to five days. In a 4-3 vote, the board voted down the recommended changes from Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio, which would have brought the district in line with new, less restrictive guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kentucky Department of Public Health.
“The things we’re doing are working,” District 4 board member Joe Marshall said. “My biggest concern with shortening this quarantine and isolation time is we’re going to have to take people’s word on whether or not they really are ready to come back, if they have symptoms or if they don’t.”
The vote means the quarantine period for exposed and unvaccinated students and staff will remain between seven and 14 days, depending on a determination made by a health care professional. Quarantined students can still attend school if they participate in the “test-to-stay” program and provide daily negative rapid tests. Isolation for infected students and staff will remain at 10 days.
Many health experts have been critical of the CDC’s shortened isolation period for being too reliant on the honor system. The new guidance says people can come out of quarantine or isolation after five days, as long as they no longer have symptoms. But they must wear a well-fitting mask anytime they are around others for an additional five days.
Marshall said he thought previous recommendations from the CDC around COVID-19 measures were in line with the broader scientific community’s consensus on the virus.
“I just don’t feel that’s the case this time. I feel like this was made for other reasons,” Marshall said.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky herself acknowledged that part of the decision was motivated by a desire to keep “critical functions of society open and operating,” amid nationwide staffing shortages.
Staffing shortages due to sick employees isolating or exposed employees quarantining forced JCPS to move to remote learning on Jan. 10. The district will be in nontraditional instruction, or NTI, for the rest of this week.
Marshall voted against the shortened quarantine and isolation period, and other new guidelines, along with District 2 member Chris Kolb, District 6 member Corrie Shull and District 1 member and board chair Diane Porter.
Porter called the proposed changes “dangerous, I think, for the district that I represent.”
Board members James Craig of District 3, Sarah Cole McIntosh of District 7 and Linda Duncan of District 5 voted in favor of shortening the quarantine and isolation period.
In voting down the new guidelines, board members also opted to keep contract tracing and quarantining for in-school COVID-19 exposures.
Jan. 10 updates from the state said schools didn’t have to quarantine or contact trace for in-school exposures. CDC guidance, however, still recommends contact tracing in schools, and considers a masked student to be a “close contact” if they were within three feet of an infected person.
Remote learning days approved
In another vote, board members also authorized Pollio to use “remote learning days” at his discretion. State lawmakers created the remote learning days last week, allowing 10 per school. “Remote learning days” are different from nontraditional instruction, or NTI. They allow a school, grade or group of students to pivot to remote instruction, but not the entire district. NTI allows the entire district to pivot to remote instruction.
In the last two weeks, JCPS has already used 8 of the 10 NTI days it has for the year.
Pollio said it would be “challenging” to figure out how to use the remote learning days in a district with 155 school buildings.
“But obviously we think it’s an increased flexibility that we would need,” he said.
The superintendent said he would avoid using remote learning days building by building, and would instead focus on sending whole grade levels of students into remote learning district-wide.