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School protocols have key changes for masked vs unmasked

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Schools that have students wear masks and follow certain COVID-19 protocols won’t have to send home children exposed to the coronavirus, according to recent guidance from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“That will make a huge change for us,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey said this week about the number of students who could potentially be sent home from school because another student was diagnosed with the virus.

For schools that don’t require masks, protocol is to send home students who are exposed to a COVID-19 positive classmate. There are exceptions for those who have been vaccinated or contracted the virus within the past three months.

The guidance also says masked schools are allowed to relax social distancing between students from 6 to 3 feet, while for unmasked schools it remains 6 feet.

Alabama has no statewide mask mandate and Gov. Kay Ivey has repeatedly said there won’t be one. Louisiana this week became the lone southern state to reinstate its indoor mask mandate in response to a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.

For Alabama, in-school mask mandates are up to the individual systems and so far, only a handful have announced the requirement for the school year that begins this month.

Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said the updated guidance on masked students staying in school after an exposure is an incentive for schools to adopt mandates.

“But I would hope that they would do so just so schools can do their part to prevent further spread of the virus,” Smith said. “We respect that this is a local decision, but we strongly encouraged school boards to listen to the advice of the ADPH and CDC.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend masks for all K-12 students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC is requiring that masks be worn by anyone on public buses, including school buses.

“Require masks and social distancing to open schools safely,” the ADPH guidance says. “If these guidelines are followed, no quarantine is required when a student has been exposed.

“… Implementing universal masking, spacing, and vaccinations (when age-appropriate) recommendations will allow more students to remain in school, more parents and grandparents to remain at work, and most importantly prevent an outbreak in the school that could spread to the community at large.”

On Tuesday, 1,694 Alabamians were hospitalized because of COVID, according to ADPH data. That was an increase of 110 from Monday. Hospitalizations have not been this high since February. A month ago, there were a little over 200 people hospitalized.

Smith said the AASB is going to provide local boards with materials to support them in mask requirement decisions.

“We know that it is politically very sensitive right now. We’d love it if the focus went from being about politics to being about following the best medical advice that we have right now.”

Smith said if vaccination rates increase and transmission rates decrease, the protocols will be temporary.

Keeping students in school is the priority, Smith said, and the new provision should be encouraging for schools and families. Having children sent home because they were exposed to COVID can be disruptive to working families.

The quarantine period is 10 to 14 days.

Individuals who test positive for or are diagnosed with COVID-19 must stay home for 10 days following the onset of symptoms or a positive test result and must be 24 hours fever-free without fever-reducing medications and symptoms improved before returning to school, ADPH said.

Quarantines aren’t necessary for exposed students if they have been fully vaccinated or were diagnosed with COVID-19 within the last three months.

Unvaccinated individuals who are identified as a close contact and do not meet the K-12 indoor classroom student criteria — masks and social distance — must be sent home.

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