With school just beginning and students returning to the classroom after being away for so long, it is an exciting school year for many. Yet, with COVID cases currently on the rise across the nation, there is still a need for many safety protocols to be in place, including quarantining sick students or those that may have come into contact with an infected student.
The Fairfax County Parents Association (FCPA) tweeted a photograph of one anonymous parent’s frustration with their child being quarantined. The photograph stated, “So yet again, my daughter is denied access to her public school, and its events. And I am so glad I rushed out to get her the vaccine so she could return to normal. Vaccinated cheerleader gets COVID, is sick for a few days and recovers. But now, even the cheerleaders who had zero contact with the sick cheerleader are penalized and quarantined. Even the vaccinated ones! We received no call from the VDH [Virginia Department of Health], the kids have not had practice now in 9 days, and my daughter will be denied access to the last ‘back to school’ event of her HS career.”
Stories like this are creating confusion and anger amongst parents across the county, as they struggle to understand what exactly the basis for students needing to be quarantined is. Tom and Moira Winston are concerned about how their high school-age daughter will be able to have a normal school year when they have already had to quarantine their daughter due to exposure to the virus.
“The concern is about continuity of learning and taking part in school activities. Closing sports and school for 14 days is not what the CDC recommends. There is too much inconsistency, the school board seems to be dictating how this takes place,” the Winstons said. “Every day there is going to be a report of someone getting COVID, and I get it, people are scared, but most of these kids are recovering in two to three days, and they will return to school when they test negative. They keep finding reasons to shut down the school. They said get them vaccinated and return to normal, but now there is no normal, our daughter got vaccinated and there is no normal. She is continually concerned activities will get canceled. There has to be a more efficient way to handle this. The virus is never going to go away, no one can continue on this trajectory.”
On the FCPS website return to school page, the definition of contact tracing and who will need to quarantine has directions about how the county will handle exposure to the virus. “In the event of a COVID-19 exposure, FCPS will work with the Fairfax County Health Department to conduct contact tracing and determine if quarantining is necessary. Should an individual or group be directed to quarantine, plans are in place to ensure continuity of learning,” the website says. “The CDC provides a definition of ‘close contact.’ In the K–12 indoor classroom setting, the close contact definition excludes students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student where: both students were engaged in consistent and correct use of well-fitting masks; and other K–12 school prevention strategies (such as universal and correct mask use, physical distancing, increased ventilation) were in place in the K–12 school setting. Individuals who meet the K-12 definition of close contact will still need to quarantine.”
Currently the CDC website has recommendations for when to quarantine that are a bit different than the FCPS standards. “Quarantine if you have been in close contact (within 6 feet of someone for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period) with someone who has COVID-19, unless you have been fully vaccinated. People who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after contact with someone who had COVID-19 unless they have symptoms,” their website states. “However, fully vaccinated people should get tested 3-5 days after their exposure, even if they don’t have symptoms and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until their test result is negative.”
Reem Trahan has two high school-age daughters, who both are on the varsity cheer team. Trahan shares concerns that parents like the Winstons have as her daughters have been mistakenly asked to quarantine. “It didn’t matter when things were paused last year because the year was missed anyway. But this year it’s back to school five days a week. One of the girls on the cheer team got COVID, and they cannot name who the girl is which is an issue. I understand HIPAA and the reasoning, but we are all in this together,” Trahan said. “My daughters’ close friends, who are not on the cheer team, were getting sick too. And the Health Department thinks it’s only the cheer team, but really it all started at a party. My daughters and I went and got tested, we had no symptoms, we were all negative in an attempt to ask ‘does this give them permission to attend school?’ But they were all over the place. Nobody knows what they are doing.”
Many parents are concerned that there is no virtual option for their children when they are subject to being quarantined. “We understand the risk we are taking. At the end of the day, it’s contagious, this is real, we get it. But we are open to the risk because we saw what happens when they do not go to school,” Trahan said. “They need an academic year. But how will we have a regular school year if we stop every time someone gets sick? Kids are vaccinated but still having to quarantine, there is too much confusion. And there is no virtual option for those in quarantine.”
Mickel Dennis has a son at South County High School who plays on the football team, and due to his 14-day quarantine, missed the first four days of school. “The Fairfax County Health Department (FCHD) reached out to me about my son, asking if he was at football practice, which he was, and I objected to the 14-day quarantine. I had no knowledge about what could potentially happen when a student is around someone who has COVID,” Dennis said. “The lack of information shared by the FCHD to coaches, players and parents was not there until someone got sick. My son has not had any virtual learning options, he is literally sitting at home. No teacher reached out, he had to email them all. Kids are going to have COVID in school, then they will all have to be sent home, and it’s not fair. They need to email the parents or send home a brochure with information so we can be aware of our options. I am disappointed and frustrated.”
The Fairfax County Health Department could not be reached for comment.