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As quarantines send students home, what’s the plan to keep them learning?

Students line up on socially distanced dots painted on the sidewalk to wait their turn to be scanned by a temperature screener before classes at Middletown High School.
Students line up before classes at Middletown High School. As COVID cases rise, students across the country are seeing the start of their year disrupted by quarantines.
Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

It was only her son’s third day of kindergarten when Sabrina Padgett got a call in late July that he’d been exposed to COVID and had to stay home for over a week.

Soon after, that got extended when Padgett herself tested positive for COVID. Then her other two school-age children had to stay home, too.

What happened next made her even more concerned. Padgett says her children didn’t have the option to do lessons online and weren’t given hotspots or laptops, though other schools in their Mississippi district transitioned to virtual learning. It took a week to receive packets of printed work for her older children. And her kindergartener was given worksheets that asked him to write his name and numbers — skills he hasn’t learned yet.

“I was like: ‘My kids need work!’” she said. ​​“I’ve been concerned about them.”

Many families and school officials had hoped that this school year would bring more normalcy and consistency for students. But as COVID cases rise, students across the country are seeing the start of their year disrupted by quarantines after they were exposed to COVID.

Some schools are offering quarantining students live virtual instruction. But others are being sent home with only paper packets or are receiving no instruction at all — a worrying indication that many students could face another year of stop-and-start learning. In states like Mississippi, where case rates are among the highest in the country and many students lack access to home internet and devices, the situation is particularly fraught.

“The question of quarantines matter a lot for this year because it’s another way in which some students may lose access to in-person learning,” said Bree Dusseault, an analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank that has been tracking schools’ COVID policies. “Until they create a plan, what’s most likely to happen is a default to, the student is just home without resources and supports.”

The latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say masked students should be partially exempt from typical quarantine rules. Vaccinated people who are asymptomatic also don’t need to quarantine after being exposed, the CDC says.

Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University, said that quarantining should be relatively rare at schools following the CDC’s guidance, which also includes universal masking.

But many schools have reopened without requiring masks, and it’s not clear how widely this quarantining guidance has trickled down to districts. A survey of 100 large districts’ plans that Dusseault conducted found that many districts have more stringent quarantine rules than the CDC recommends.

If this combination persists as the school year ramps up, quarantining will be common once again. “We are probably going to see quite a few groups of children having to drop back for a week at a time to some form of remote or virtual learning,” Hassig said. (The CDC recommends that quarantines last seven to 14 days.)

Schools that planned for a fully in-person school year, though, are without options they had last year. Some eliminated virtual schooling or created a separate virtual academy; promised educators they wouldn’t be teaching in-person students and remote students at the same time; and didn’t hand out laptops and hotspots to students without their own technology.

In Florida’s Hillsborough County, some 5,600 students — or about 2.5% of the student body — were in quarantine or isolation as of Monday. The district’s fully virtual option is set up as its own school, so it’s not open to in-person students quarantining.

District officials, realizing the scope of the academic challenge ahead, are now strongly encouraging teachers to post assignments online. The district is also hiring 10 part-time teachers to host live video sessions for elementary schoolers stuck at home and plans to contract with a virtual tutoring company to help older students.

Assistant superintendent Daniela Simic hopes those new services will help, but acknowledged the district was caught off guard by the delta variant.

“We were just like, ‘Thank god this is over,’ and then, wow were we wrong,” she said.

Some districts are planning a return to simultaneous instruction if necessary. In Selma, Alabama, superintendent Avis Williams said when students are quarantining, teachers will have to teach remote and in-person students at once.

Many educators said that practice was untenable and ineffective last year. But Williams is optimistic. “We’ll be better prepared to do it this year because we had a lot of time to practice it last year,” she said.

Others are adjusting expectations. In Baldwin Union schools on Long Island, New York, middle and high school students at home will be able to stream lessons online. But superintendent Shari Camhi says teachers won’t be working as closely with the quarantining students.

“It won’t be the same interactive experience as it was last year,” she said.

Orange County, Florida — a large district centered around Orlando where a small number of students have already quarantined — is taking another common approach: treating quarantines like regular sick days, despite the fact that students might miss longer stretches. Parents have been advised that teachers can send assignments home with students “as with any illness,” though some teachers may also stream or record audio of their lessons.

Others are still working out the details as they prepare for the school year to begin. In New York City, fully vaccinated students and staff won’t have to quarantine after a COVID exposure as long as they don’t show symptoms. But officials have yet to say whether unvaccinated students who are exposed will be required to stay home once school starts in September, and what kind of instruction they’ll get if they do.

“How we deal with a kid who is out for a week is something we’re working through right now, but we’re going to be on a fully in-person system,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said recently.

Without a clear strategy, swaths of students could miss out on chunks of the school year — especially if they are repeatedly exposed — at a time when many have already fallen behind where they normally would be academically.

As the number of quarantining students rises, some districts that resisted requiring masks are moving to mandate them. Padgett’s school district, Simpson County in Mississippi, where nearly one in five students had to quarantine earlier this month, is one.

Elsewhere, parents are trying to avoid possible disruption on their own. In Jefferson County, Colorado, Letia Frandina changed her plan to enroll her children in a charter school after it announced masks wouldn’t be required for the whole school day and that it didn’t plan to offer live virtual instruction to students in quarantine.

She found other schools requiring masks for children under 12, and the county has since issued an order requiring masks for students in all types of schools. Her four children, who are in second to eighth grade, spent most of the last year learning online, and she didn’t want anything to add to the likelihood of repeating that experience.

“They’re really wanting to be in school,” she said. “We’re like: Don’t start your year with a quarantine.”

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