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Schools and COVID: How is it determined who should quarantine?

Posted at 6:35 PM, Sep 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-29 18:36:38-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — How do health departments and schools determine who should quarantine when someone within the school tests positive for COVID-19? Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said figuring out COVID-19 guidelines for schools is both an art and a science.

"We have to think about the distance of students and the staff from each other. We have to think about if they're wearing masks. The age because hygiene of younger kids are going to be different than the hygiene of older kids. We have to think about duration of the exposure, how long they're sitting in the class together," Burstein said.

Niagara County Public Health Director Dan Stapleton said that's why there isn't a one size fits all approach when a COVID case pops up in a school.

"These things come up. Then we talk to the New York State Communicable Disease Representative, and then we'll make the best decision together on how to handle it," Stapleton said.

As of right now, there are two options:

  1. Quarantine anyone who was within six feet of the COVID positive person for longer than ten minutes.
  2. Quarantine everyone who was in the same room as the COVID positive person for more than an hour.

"In a regular sized classroom, if the duration of exposure was longer than 60 minutes then we are concerned that there could be significant exposure," Burstein said.

Stapleton said that's exactly what happened at the Maple Avenue Elementary School in Niagara Falls. A staff member tested positive after spending longer than an hour in multiple classrooms. Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie said after contact tracing, the health department determined 61 people were at risk. The school is now closed until next week.

But when St. Andrews Country Day School in the Town of Tonawanda had a staff member test positive on August 31st, just before the start of school, only those who came into close contact with the person for longer than 10 minutes had to quarantine. The principal still decided to delay the start of school just to be safe.

"You make a decision on what's best for the children and make sure that we don't take any chances on safety for the sake of the learning environment," Stapleton said.