Memphis school officials are reviewing COVID protocols after health department softens quarantines

A student emphatically raises their hand during an exercise in class. The student and their peers are all wearing protective masks at their desks in the classroom.
In its newest order, the Shelby County Health Department said quarantine is only required for those diagnosed with COVID. Shelby County Schools’ current policy is that those both diagnosed and exposed individuals should quarantine. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Memphis school officials are reviewing COVID policies after the Shelby County Health Department softened quarantine guidelines.

In the newest health order, which took effect Wednesday, the health department said quarantine is only required for those diagnosed with COVID. Shelby County Schools’ current policy is that those diagnosed and exposed should quarantine. 

The health department’s order puts Shelby County in closer alignment with new state laws that attempt to dial back local health officials’ ability to enact COVID restrictions. Two federal judges, meanwhile, have issued orders that blunt the state laws. Unmasked students during a pandemic pose a health risk to children with compromised immune systems, who are protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, lawsuits argue. 

Since the school year began in August, the district has required students and staff identified as close contacts to quarantine for 10 days from the last date of contact with the COVID positive person. If the student or staff member exhibits no symptoms for seven days and tests negative, the quarantine period is shortened to seven days.

School quarantines have been one of the largest obstacles families and educators have faced since the pandemic began. Parents have bemoaned the challenges of juggling their children’s at-home learning with their own full-time work, and teachers have struggled to ensure children continue learning from home.

In a survey of state educators, 65% of responding teachers who taught in person last school year said adapting to mandated student and staff quarantines was a challenge. Forty percent of respondents said quarantine was the biggest challenge they faced. Teachers also opposed using sick days for mandatory quarantines, a policy that the district changed earlier this year in response. 

In a Tuesday statement, a Shelby County Schools spokesperson said administrators are conducting an internal review of COVID policies. In the meantime, though, families and district staff continue to follow the same pandemic protocols they have all school year.

Like Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools continues to require masks, but as of earlier this month no longer requires students and staff to quarantine if they are asymptomatic after coming into close contact with a COVID-positive person.

Dr. Sandy Arnold, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, isn’t especially worried about districts like Nashville softening quarantine rules — considering the disruption it causes children and their families.

However, Arnold is worried about districts that have opted to drop both mask and quarantine requirements at the same time. 

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Most suburban Memphis school districts are not requiring masks. In Germantown, the only suburban district in the area that continues to mandate masks, the school board is debating how it should proceed. Numerous residents have complained about the masking policy, the Daily Memphian reported Tuesday.

Arnold suggested it would be safer for school officials to drop school quarantines first, and wait to lift mask mandates until at least after the holidays, when cases are likely to spike from increased indoor social gatherings.

In the Memphis area, Arnold said, both might be bad ideas because of the community’s low vaccination rates, especially among school-age children who only recently were cleared to receive the Pfizer vaccine. In total, around 48% of Shelby County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to Wednesday data from the health department. And as of last Thursday, the last time the department released its weekly numbers, fewer than 10% of children ages 5-11 and just under 50% of children ages 12-17 have gotten at least one dose of the COVID vaccine.

Arnold urged parents to vaccinate their children — and themselves.

“If we had higher vaccination rates, I’d be a lot less worried about this,” Arnold said. “It’s concerning. Only time will tell us what happens.” 

She added: “I just hope I don’t see any kids on ventilators because of this.”

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