McFarland School District students considered close contacts of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 are no longer required to quarantine.
The School Board unanimously approved the change to COVID-19 protocols Monday. For most schools in Dane County, students who are considered close contacts and are unvaccinated are required to quarantine for 14 days from exposure or receive a test one week after exposure to allow them to return a few days earlier.
In a letter to Dane County school superintendents last month, Public Health Madison & Dane County director Janel Heinrich encouraged districts to continue quarantine practices.
Interim superintendent Wayne Anderson and the district’s medical adviser supported the change made by the School Board, according to a letter sent to families Tuesday.
Anderson told board members at their meeting Monday that of 441 students who had quarantined so far this school year, 28 would test positive for COVID-19, meaning 413 students could have remained in school.
“As many people as we can have in in-person instruction, the better it is,” Anderson said. “The vast majority of those that have been quarantined didn’t test positive at all.”
Anderson said that of the 28 students in the group of 441 who have quarantined so far this year, three were a close contact within school, three were a close contact at a club or sport and 22 were a close contact somewhere outside of school.
Heinrich's Nov. 19 letter, which PHMDC communications manager Sarah Mattes provided to the Cap Times, stated that PHMDC is “aware that some schools are considering changing how they follow quarantine guidance” and reiterated the department’s stance that quarantines are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“To be clear, schools cannot redefine ‘quarantine,’ or ‘close contact’ or declare that they are ‘ending quarantine’ for individuals,” Heinrich wrote. “These are public health terms that have implications beyond the school setting.
“Schools cannot say to someone who knows that they were exposed to COVID-19 that they do not need to quarantine. They do.”
In an interview Friday morning, Anderson stressed that the district is not “wedded to this decision,” and it will continue to review COVID protocols monthly as it has been throughout the pandemic.
“If we find that this decision has been positive we will continue with it,” he said. “If we find out that it is having negative consequences then we will change it.”
In total, the district has had 103 positive student cases and 15 positive staff cases since Sept. 1, according to its data dashboard.
The district will still notify families if their child is a close contact and encourage them to monitor children for symptoms for 14 days and get a COVID test. But families will be able to choose if they want to quarantine their child or send them to school as long as they are asymptomatic.
Public Health Madison & Dane County’s most recent guidance for schools still recommends quarantining for unvaccinated close contacts. In the November letter, Heinrich wrote that “isolation and quarantine continue to remain important communicable disease prevention tools to prevent disease spread.”
“Ensuring that people who are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, a highly infectious disease, do not attend school while they are potentially infectious is critical for preventing outbreaks that could result in others becoming ill and not being able to attend work or participate in in-school learning,” she wrote.
McFarland’s School Board had previously voted to end its mask mandate at the high school level following the anticipated end of PHMDC’s mandate on Nov. 27, with the district instead strongly encouraging masks. But PHMDC extended the mandate until Jan. 3.
Anderson said the mask issue is the one he receives the most emails about from constituents, with some encouraging them to forgo PHMDC’s mandate.
“I get numerous emails on both sides of the question,” he said.
The universal masking environment, however, played a role in the recommendation to change the quarantining rules, he said.
“As long as we were in a universal masking relationship in school, it was determined that it would be safe to allow the students that … were a close contact to not have to quarantine at home but to be able to come to school until they showed symptoms,” he said. “If they showed symptoms, then they would have to quarantine at home and go through our normal quarantine process.”
In her letter, Heinrich said that if infections spread in schools they can be carried home and “lead to continued and increased community spread within the school district.”
“A school or any other entity that does not follow public health guidance is putting other people who share spaces with close contacts at risk for infection,” she wrote. “It is quite likely that these actions would lead to more infected individuals within school buildings, increase the chance of a severe negative outcome for a student, staff, or other person in the school setting, and potentially jeopardize the ability to continue in-school learning.”