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Health Experts Have Mixed Views On Ohio's New School Quarantine Rules

Pickerington students board a school bus in September.
Pickerington Local School District

Some Ohio K-12 students returned to in-person schooling Monday with new COVID-19 rules in place – no longer having to quarantine at home if they were exposed to the virus in their classroom.

The new guidance is only for classrooms where masking and social distancing measures are in place, and does not apply to exposures in extracurricular settings, state officials said.

Gov. Mike DeWine announced the new quarantine policy in a press conference last week. The policy is based on data collected in nine Ohio school districts where elementary, middle and high school students were regularly tested for the virus in November and December.

A preliminary analysis found students who were close contacts and appropriately masked had rates of COVID-19 similar to children with no known COVID-19 exposure in school.

Public health experts have mixed feelings about Ohio's new guidance.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea at all,” said Tara Smith, professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health at Kent State University. “I understand the push to get and keep kids in school… but I think from a public health point of view, this is moving backward."

Smith expressed concerns about the number of students in the sample size of the study being too small, and that the schools studied may not be representative of schools in all regions in the state.

She argues the relaxed rules send the wrong message to people who may already doubt the importance of staying home and away from others in quarantine if they have been exposed to the virus.

“If people think kids can get away with it in school districts without quarantine, is the same thing going to happen at workplaces if somebody is exposed?” Smith said.“I’m concerned about this policy spreading beyond where it was intended and where it has been examined so far."

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University, has a different view. Adalja supports the relaxed rules from the DeWine administration because contact tracing efforts have shown most children are not contracting COVID-19 in the classroom.

“This is a reasonable, data-driven approach that, I think, will not likely result in increased cases in schools, so long as schools are taking it seriously,” Adalja said. “I do think with masking policies and physical separation, you likely can de-limit the number of significant exposures that a person in a classroom has with others."

But Smith has heard anecdotally that some Ohio schools have had problems with mask compliance, which is another one of her concerns about the new guidance.

There is also anecdotal evidence that thenew COVID-19 variant reported in some U.S. cities spreads more easily in children, which down the line could lead to greater exposure in the classroom if kids are not required to quarantine.

Both Smith and Adalja said more research is needed on the variant before conclusions about its impacts on children can be drawn.

“I’ve seen no convincing evidence that… this is preferentially infecting children," Adalja said. "The general principle, though, is a new variant is likely more contagious, which means that you just have to do the same things we’ve been doing, better."

Adalja agrees with Ohio's relaxed quarantine guidance because masking and social distancing are known to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We have to make opening schools a priority, and I think that the science does support this [policy],” he said.

Smith would prefer to err on the side of caution until more statistical analysis is done on the data collected from schools.

“Yes, I think masking and social distancing help, but we know they’re not complete, and we know that can have breaches, and so that’s where the quarantine helps to pick up some of that extra exposure,” Smith said.

Ashland City, Athens City, Champion Local, Lakota Local, Marysville Exempted Village, Mason City, Princeton City, Troy City, and Whitehall City School Districts participated in the study used by state officials. The schools were selected by the Office of the Governor, the Ohio Department of Medicaid, and The Ohio State University.

The full report from the Ohio Schools COVID-19 Evaluation Team will be released Jan. 29, 2021.

Anna joined ideastream in 2019, where she reports on health news for WCPN and WVIZ in Cleveland. She has also served as an associate producer for NewsDepth. Before that, Anna was a 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.