The Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors voted during its meeting on Tuesday to relax the district’s standards for when students need to quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19. ICCSD had been using the standards recommended by the CDC and Johnson County Public Health and the directors voted 6-1 to switch to the standards recommended by the Iowa Department of Public Health, with Director Charlie Eastham casting the only vote against the change.
The district will monitor what impact, if any, the change has on the number of students who are reported as having COVID-19 or as being exposed to it, and will assess that impact two to three weeks after the change occurs. District staff will begin contacting families who have students currently quarantined regarding the changes on Thursday.
Under the previous standards, ICCSD required students to quarantine for 14 days if the student had been within six feet of someone who has tested positive for the virus for 15 minutes or were in an enclosed space with a positive individual for two hours. The two-hour threshold is a recommendation of JCPH; the 15-minute threshold is recommended by both JCPH and the CDC.
Students who were fully vaccinated at least 14 days before the contact with someone who tested positive were exempt from having to quarantine.
IDPH standards call for students to quarantine for 10 days if they have been within six feet of a positive individual for 15 minutes. If a student tests negative for COVID-19 after a potential exposure, the student will only need to quarantine for seven days.
Also, if both the student and the infected person with whom the student had close contact were both properly wearing face coverings during the contact, no quarantine period is required, although the student will be told to self-monitor for any symptoms of the virus.
The quarantine requirement for students who have tested positive for COVID-19 are the same under both the CDC and JCPH standards and the IDPH standards, so it will not change. Students must isolate for 10 days and be without a fever for 24 hours before returning to a school campus.
JCPH recommended the district not change its quarantine rules.
“We’re trying to stop the spread of infection, protect schools and the community as a whole and vulnerable people,” Jennifer Miller, disease prevention specialist at Johnson County Public Health, told the board. “It’s not the time to give up on all the work we’ve been doing for a year.”
Members of the board said they were committed to maintaining virus mitigation efforts, but said it was important to address the impact the district’s quarantine policy has on families.
“As long as we as a district monitor it, I am willing to try it, because we are seeing the harm that some of our families are experiencing right now,” Director Ruthina Malone said. Some families have difficulty with the 14-day quarantine period, because the parents’ working schedules don’t allow them to help kids with online learning or provide necessary supervision for younger kids who must stay home.
ICCSD’s administration recommended the district make the change.
“There is, I think, pandemic fatigue, but that also speaks to the burden that we place on families and what responsibility we do have for that when we look at sending kids home, and how long and how well families can continue to manage that experience,” ICCSD Superintendent Matt Degner said.
The district is making the change after weeks of increases in the number of students quarantined.
As of 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the ICCSD COVID-19 dashboard reported 983 students, or 6.6 percent of all enrolled students, were quarantined. A month earlier on March 13, the number of quarantined students was 352. A total of 136 students were considered infected with COVID-19, according to the district. Of those, 49 had tested positive for the virus and 87 were presumed to be positive.
Speaking to the Press-Citizen last week, JCPH Community Health Division Manager Sam Jarvis said, “At this time, there is a concern that there may be transmission in classrooms, and we’ve seen some transmission in athletics.”
But Dr. Melanie Wellington, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at the University of Iowa, told the newspaper that increases in cases among those under 18 years old have been seen across the country and internationally, and the cause for the increase was unclear.
“Once a society gets partway through its immunization campaign, there has been a shift in transmission and they see a lot more cases in the pediatric age groups,” she said.
Wellington speculated that an increase in the number of young people testing positive might reflect the amount of testing for COVID-19 being done in Johnson County.
“I suspect that this looks like it’s happening at ICCSD and not in other areas of Iowa because we are detecting it early because of the strength of our system,” Wellington said.
The change in ICCSD’s quarantine policy brings the district into line with other large school districts in the state, including Cedar Rapids Community School District, Des Moines Public Schools, Davenport Community Schools and Sioux City Community Schools, all of whom use the IDPH standards.