Warren County schools prepare a new pilot program. The goal: end COVID-19 quarantines. – Cincinnati.com

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COVID-19 and children under 12: How the pandemic affects the unvaccinated

COVID-19 cases have spiked among children especially those under 12 who are unvaccinated. Here’s how to protect them.

Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

It was around this time last year when some Southwest Ohio school districts began discussing a rapid-testing pilot program that ultimately helped change Ohio’s quarantine guidelines in schools. Now some of those same school districts and other local schools are gearing up for another pilot program, aimed at eliminating out-of-school quarantines altogether.

Under the new pilot program, which a letter from Little Miami Schools says is slated to start the week of Sept. 13, unvaccinated students who aren’t wearing face masks won’t have to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19. Local districts are working with the Ohio Department of Education to develop the new protocols.

Ten Warren County school districts have agreed to participate in the pilot, Gov. Mike DeWine said at a news conference last week. The districts are:

  • Carlisle Local Schools.
  • Kings Local Schools.
  • Lebanon City School District.
  • Little Miami
  • Franklin City Schools.
  • Mason City Schools.
  • Springboro Schools.
  • Wayne Local School District.
  • Monroe Local Schools.
  • Clinton-Massie Local Schools.

The Warren County Career Center and Warren County Educational Service Center have also signed on to the pilot program, Mason City Schools spokesperson Tracey Carson said. Other superintendents across the state have shown interest since the governor mentioned the program last week.

What’s the issue with quarantines?

Current guidance from the state requires unvaccinated students and staff without symptoms to quarantine at home if they were not wearing masks and distanced when exposed to COVID-19.

Without a state mask mandate, many school districts have decided to make masking optional. That’s led to hundreds of students being quarantined and school closures across the state, including Lebanon City Schools and Carlisle Local Schools in Warren County.

More: UPDATED LIST: More schools are switching to universal mask policies as COVID-19 cases rise

Students needing COVID-19 tests to get out from under quarantine are among those swamping the Cincinnati area’s emergency rooms. Health officials Wednesday urged people without COVID-19 symptoms to go elsewhere for testing.

That’s one of the benefits of this pilot program, Mason Schools Superintendent Jonathan Cooper said. The state will be providing rapid COVID-19 tests specifically for their data collection at participating schools, so local health care providers won’t experience additional strain.

There are many reasons why these quarantines are negatively impacting kids and the community, Cooper said. Students’ mental health suffers when they aren’t in school. And experts across the state agree that students learn better in person.

“Quarantining healthy students is a significant issue among all school leaders as it is our collaborative desire to keep students in school,” Little Miami Schools wrote to district families last week.

“We recognize the burden that quarantine puts on our students, their families, and our educators. We feel as if quarantining healthy students socially isolates them from their learning community and negatively impacts their mental health.”

For now, the best defense for families hoping to keep their kids in school is to mask them, or get them vaccinated. There is no statewide health order requiring masks in schools this year, but DeWine has urged districts to require them.

“The way we keep our kids in schools is for schools to make a decision to mask and require masking for everybody in the school,” DeWine said Wednesday. “We saw how well that worked last year. It worked phenomenally well last year. It can work that well again.”

Pilot program: How will it work?

In an effort to keep more healthy students in school, Cooper brought his peers together in Warren County and started writing letters to DeWine. Instead of complaining, Cooper said, they offered to work with state experts and doctors to come up with a plan.

“We’re so grateful because to get the governor’s attention again this year and to have his whole team at our disposal, ready to have the top doctors in the state to join us,” he said, “You just can’t get better than that.”

Under the pilot project, DeWine said, a student exposed to the coronavirus could stay in school as long as they wore a mask and took two rapid tests a few days apart. If a student tests positive, they will be sent home to isolate. Details are still being worked out, he said.

In the past, districts have had 300 or more students quarantined when only two or so students have been sick, Cooper said. That wouldn’t happen with the pilot program.

“Instead of 298 kids healthy at home(…) being frustrated and possibly struggling with their mental health, they’re at school,” Cooper said. “And now they’re wearing a mask. And not only are they wearing a mask, now they’re participating in the testing protocol giving us more data to help us be more strategic.”

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If successful, DeWine said, the protocol could be offered to other school districts. 

Cooper said that parents will be given the option to participate in the program if they wish; it is not required. Unvaccinated, unmasked students who are exposed to COVID-19 can still stay home to quarantine if they and their families wish.

Mason City Schools has a mask mandate for students in grades pre-K through 6. This measure was determined early in the school year as another way to prevent mass quarantines, Cooper said.

More: Back-to-school during COVID-19: Here’s what you need to know about school quarantines

“If you’re a district that currently does not have any mask mandate in place, you open yourself up to a larger risk of quarantining more kids. It’s just the nature of the numbers,” Cooper said. 

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