Oneida County Schools COVID Task Force urging state to change school bus quarantine policy

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WESTMORELAND — The Oneida County Schools COVID Task Force, made up of representatives from the Utica, Sauquoit Valley, New York Mills, Oriskany, Camden, Rome and Westmoreland school districts, are urging the county to change the school bus quarantine policy.

According to correspondence provided by the school district consortium, local schools are concerned about the number of students who have been quarantined since the beginning of the school year due to being deemed close contacts of other students who may have tested positive for COVID-19 within 48 hours of having ridden on a school bus.

Under the current direction of the Oneida County Department of Health, any student who rides a school bus, and is on that bus for more than 15 minutes cumulatively and is within 6 feet of an individual who has tested positive, must quarantine for 10 days – even if all students are wearing face masks appropriately.

This can amount to as many as 15 quarantines for every single student who may have tested positive within 48 hours of having ridden on a bus. Just in the few schools belonging to the Oneida County Schools COVID Task Force, this has amounted to well more than 100 quarantines in the first four weeks of the school year. Fortunately, none of the quarantined students became symptomatic or tested positive for COVID-19, district officials said.

The Oneida County Schools COVID Task Force stated that the OCDOH’s policy is much too onerous and strict, resulting in far too many students being excluded from in-person instruction.

New York State Department of Health guidance defines a “close contact” for quarantine purposes as anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. However, there is an exception to this definition. The exception states, “in the P-12 indoor classroom setting, the CDC specifies that students who were within three to six feet of an infected student, where both students were engaged in consistent and correct use of well-fitting masks, are not considered close contacts.”

Additionally, the CDC provides the following exception to the six foot close contact rule: “in the K-12 indoor classroom setting or a structured outdoor setting where mask use can be observed (such as holding class outdoors with educator supervision), the close contact definition excludes students who were between three to six feet of an infected student —laboratory-confirmed or a clinical diagnosis — if both the infected student and the exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time.”

The OCDOH has taken the position that students traveling on school buses do not fall within the exceptions outlined above. Although there is no definition of “classroom setting,” it is difficult to argue that a school bus would not be considered an extension of the classroom.

A school district’s policies and practices, as well as federal and state obligations), extend to students riding on a school bus. There is also close supervision of such students, similar to that of a classroom.

“It was our understanding that New York state and the CDC revised the close contact rule for two reasons: To make it possible for all students to return to the classroom, and because the CDC did not find a high rate of transmission of the COVID-19 virus in P-12 schools when schools were engaging in at least three feet physical distancing and other safety measures, such as the use of masks,” the letter stated.

It concluded, “The Oneida County Schools COVID Task Force implores the OCDOH to reexamine its stance and to stop forcing the unneeded quarantining of students. Students need to be back in school and policies such as Oneida County’s discriminate against those who rely on school district transportation to get to and from school.”

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