Paul Kuck’s second grader has spent more time in COVID-19 quarantine than in the classroom.
Since Sojourner School opened Sept. 7, the 8-year-old boy has spent just seven days learning in his Milwaukie classroom and 16 school days at home in quarantine, his father said.
That’s because Kuck’s 8-year-old son was twice exposed to someone with COVID, and each exposure carried a 14-day quarantine period. It hasn’t mattered that the boy tested negative following each exposure. Nor that he had no coronavirus symptoms.
The Kuck family’s experience is an extreme example of how Oregon’s policy for containing the coronavirus can keep kids out of school for extended periods, even as some other states and school districts have taken steps to minimize the blow to in-person disruptions.
Kuck said his son has lost valuable class time at the North Clackamas School District magnet school, and the instructional plan for quarantining students has been lacking. The boy has been given access to Google classroom, a handful of links to learning activities, but no live lessons or assignments.
Kuck said he understands the need to have safety protocols. But he’s nonetheless “frustrated by the lack of effort to get the kids back into the class as quickly and safely as possible, and the seeming lack of real intent to provide any sort of educational content to the kids in quarantine.”
Trouble began for the family over the Labor Day weekend, when Kuck said his son was unknowingly exposed to someone with COVID. He attended school for the first day of class but, after learning about the exposure, had to stay home through Sept. 17.
The boy returned to school the following week but was later unknowingly exposed to someone else with COVID during his 15-minute lunch at Sojourner on Sept. 23, his father said. He was told to quarantine from Sept. 28 through Oct. 7.
In a twist of unfortunate timing, the boy still isn’t back in the classroom. The school scheduled four days off for parent conferences and other needs, with the second grader not set to return until Thursday.
Quarantine guidance is set by the Oregon Health Authority and the state Department of Education, which say unvaccinated students should stay home for 14 days after their last close contact with an infected person, while people who are fully vaccinated are exempt. State officials recommend quarantines to help prevent exposed students, who could eventually become infected and sick themselves, from spreading the virus to others and launching a larger outbreak.
It’s unclear how many students this school year have been quarantined, and how many classroom hours have been lost, as neither state agency is publishing those numbers. But the quarantines pose the biggest threat to younger students because vaccines are not yet available to kids 11 and younger.
Although Clackamas County public health says quarantine may end after 10 days from exposure, if no symptoms arise, officials are holding firm to the 14-day recommendation for school settings – even with a negative COVID test.
“I am more frustrated about the district’s seeming lack of a straightforward process that their employees understand,” Kuck said. “There was a lot of, ‘I don’t know, that’s just what I was told,’ in terms of what the quarantine protocol is and how they were interpreting the regulations.”
Seth Gordon, a school district spokesperson, said the district will not comment on individual cases but continues to follow the recommendations of the county public health agency.
“NCSD’s top priority is the safety of our students and staff,” Gordon said in a statement. “Following the protocols set out by Clackamas County Public Health to minimize the spread of COVID-19 is crucial to achieving that goal and maximizing the amount of in-person learning for the students and families we serve.”
A different quarantine option, available in some other states, could have put Kuck’s second grader back in school and avoided him missing what amounts to more than a third of the grading term.
The “test to stay” option, also called a modified quarantine, is used in some other states, including Washington and California. Over a dozen states currently have a measure like it.
Washington’s “test to stay” program was designed to “help reduce exclusion from in person instruction.” It allows districts to opt in for a seven-day quarantine period for exposed and unvaccinated students, with two negative tests needed to return to school after the quarantine ends.
In California, unvaccinated close contacts with no symptoms can end quarantine after day 10 without a negative test or after day seven, if a negative test was obtained on or after day five from exposure.
Oregon so far has taken no action to enable those less-restrictive quarantining options and has defended its policy.
The Oregon Health Authority crafted its 14-day guidance to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says it does “not have enough evidence at this time to support” modified quarantine or test-to-stay programs, and it does not recommend close contacts be allowed back in school.
Coronavirus case rates for kids and teens in Oregon remain low relative to other age groups, which indicates that multiple public health measures in place in schools, including quarantine, are working, Tim Heider, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, said in an email.
Quarantine “is an area of active discussion,” Heider said. “It is in everyone’s best interest to minimize unnecessary quarantine while protecting individuals from exposure to COVID-19.”
For the Kuck family, “test to stay” could have created an opportunity for their son to return to school much sooner. Luckily, Kuck works from home and his wife, Brandi, works part-time, so navigating childcare hasn’t been an issue.
The couple has come up with workbooks and reading times for their child, so he gets somewhat of a school experience. Still, it’s not the same.
“The situation is frustrating,” Kuck said. “Everything about COVID is frustrating.”