BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Leaders of several Louisiana public school systems called on state officials Monday to relax coronavirus quarantine rules that have sent thousands of students home from school because they have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
School superintendents from Ascension, West Baton Rouge, Rapides and Livingston parishes said too many students are missing in-person classroom instruction because they have been sent home for 14 days to quarantine.
“We have a lot of healthy kids who are home when they don’t need to be,” West Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Wesley Watts told lawmakers on the House health care committee. “We’re not asking to do away with quarantine. We’re just asking for some modifications.”
The request comes as Louisiana is seeing its third spike in coronavirus cases, with hospitals cautioning they are concerned the latest surge will overwhelm their facilities and threaten their ability to provide care.
“While we can create additional beds and repurpose hospital floors, it becomes extremely difficult to find and train the caregivers needed to properly treat patients when there is an unmitigated spread of the virus in our communities,” Paul Salles, president of the Louisiana Hospital Association, wrote in a letter circulated Monday by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office.
More than 11,000 new infections of the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus have been confirmed in the state over the last week, and 6,039 people in Louisiana are confirmed to have died from the disease since March, according to the state health department.
Louisiana’s schools are required to follow virus safety guidelines adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, based on recommendations from the health department. It wasn’t immediately clear Monday if the state education superintendent or state health officials will ask the board to make changes.
Those guidelines require anyone considered to be in “close contact” to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or has symptoms of the disease to stay home for 14 days. Close contact is defined as anyone who has been within six feet (2 meters) of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.
Superintendents said those rules are too strict, sending entire classrooms of children home where online accessibility to virtual learning can be spotty.
Rapides Parish Superintendent Jeff Powell said his schools have quarantined nearly 4,100 students this school year, with 18 students on average sent home for each positive coronavirus test. Livingston Parish Superintendent Joe Murphy said of the 2,600 students in his system sent home to quarantine because of exposure risk, 162 have had to isolate more than once.
“We do believe the best place for them to be is in our school buildings,” said Ascension Parish Superintendent David Alexander.
The school leaders stopped short of offering a specific set of changes they wanted to see enacted, though there was talk of possibly shrinking the required quarantine days.
The superintendents said they’re seeing only small percentages of students forced to quarantine actually getting sick or testing positive for COVID-19.
But Democratic Rep. Dustin Miller, a nurse practitioner from Opelousas, noted that doesn’t mean the students didn’t have the coronavirus. He said many who spread the virus never show symptoms — and often never get tested, so it’s unclear how many students forced to quarantine were infected.
Miller said state officials set school quarantines based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That’s what the science tells us to do,” he said.
Bossier City Rep. Raymond Crews, a Republican who has opposed all of Louisiana’s coronavirus restrictions, said the 14-day quarantine requirement damages students’ education and harms their health. He said the state should find other ways to protect people most vulnerable to severe impacts from COVID-19, rather than quarantining students.
“We are hurting the children to help everyone else,” Crews said.
A few parents and students also testified in opposition to coronavirus rules in place.
“We are losing what is supposed to be the best year of high school because of COVID,” said Brennan Falgout, a senior at Central Lafourche High School. He told lawmakers: “I’m hoping we can find an answer to this and try to save the rest of the senior year that I have.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.