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Schools' Quarantine Protocols Are a Lot More Confusing Than Last Year

Masked students wait to be taken to their classrooms at Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, July 21, 2021.
AP Photo / Denis Poroy
Masked students wait to be taken to their classrooms at Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, July 21, 2021.
Last school year, schools had to close entire classrooms when one student tested positive, but the latest guidance is a lot more complicated – and almost unintelligible when it comes to individual circumstances.

In the South Bay where schools are a few weeks into the new school year, officials at Chula Vista Elementary School had to send students from four classrooms home due to positive COVID-19 cases within a short period of time. School leaders there and elsewhere are scrambling to address positive cases in the classroom while a surging Delta variant reignites challenges reminiscent of last school year.

State and federal protocol for schools on vaccines and masks have been making headlines for weeks. But guidance on when school officials should send teachers and students home to quarantine or isolate after they come in contact with someone who has tested positive, or show symptoms of the virus, is different from last year. Last school year, schools had to close entire classrooms when one student tested positive, but the latest guidance is a lot more complicated – and almost unintelligible now when it comes to individual circumstances. Regardless, most school, county and state leaders agree that kids need to be back in physical classrooms with their teachers and other students.

Last week, the state announced it will require teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. There is no vaccine or testing mandate for students, but they must wear masks in classrooms. (Unsurprisingly, the mask requirement has provoked a hostile debate between some parents, school leaders and the state and at least one district has announced it won’t require students to wear masks in response to parent outcry.)

The CDC has recommended universal indoor masking for all people in schools regardless of vaccination status.

“Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place,” the CDC’s website reads. “Students, teachers and staff should stay home when they have signs of infection illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing or care.”

Those officials are hoping masks and vaccinations can prevent districts from having to cancel classes due to coronavirus cases in classrooms.

Voice of San Diego asked the 10 largest school districts in San Diego County what they each are doing when a positive COVID-19 case appears in a classroom. Representatives from most of them said they are following a four-page document and flow chart from the San Diego County Office of Education reflecting guidance from the California Department of Public Health and county public health orders. Others, like Escondido Union School District, are still deciding what they’ll do when school returns in the next few weeks based on the latest guidance.

Corinne McCarthy, the school nursing coordinator for the County Office of Education, and Bob Mueller, the assistant incident commander for the County Office of Education, are assisting school leaders as they navigate the first weeks of school while scrambling to stay up to date on guidance on who has to leave school campuses to quarantine when someone tests positive for the coronavirus.

“It could all change in the next 10 minutes,” McCarthy said. She and Mueller said they can’t recall how many times her office has updated the document based on changing state and county guidance in response to the Delta variant and an uptick in coronavirus cases.

It’s been frustrating, they said. But there is a common thread in the guidance: “If you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to quarantine,” McCarthy said. “I can’t stress that enough.”


When schools returned to in-person learning last spring, the state advised for closures of classrooms or schools if one person tested positive and came into contact with other students, and school leaders had to notify parents of positive cases. It led to staffing challenges and major closures in more than one school district.

Those rules are now gone, and quarantine protocols are based largely on the circumstances of individuals. There is a lot of nuance around types of exposure, symptoms and even coronavirus test types, which all play a role and determine who has to quarantine and for how long when a positive case appears in a classroom. Timing is also inconsistent: one person could have to stay home for eight days, while another must stay home for 11.

Based on the state’s guidance, staff and students who are unvaccinated and have been in close contact with someone with has COVID-19 or who show symptoms of the virus should quarantine or isolate for at least some period of time. It could be eight, or 11 or even 14 days before they can return to school. It all depends on a number of factors. (Quarantine keeps someone who might have been exposed to the virus away from others, while isolation keeps someone who is infected with the virus away from others, even inside their home, according to the County Office of Education’s guidance.)

The amount of time an unvaccinated staff member or student must stay off campus before returning varies based on a few factors, including the person’s last close contact with the infected person, and the date of their COVID-19 tests.

Staff or students who are vaccinated or have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past three months and recovered do not have to quarantine or get tested again even if they’ve been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 if they do not develop new symptoms. (Close contact means being within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, providing care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19, having direct physical contact with the person like hugging or kissing, sharing eating or drinking utensils, being sneezed on, coughed on or somehow getting respiratory droplets on you from someone with COVID-19.)

The guidance says staff and students who develop symptoms again within three months of their first bout of COVID-19 should follow their doctor’s advice on testing.

Full classrooms won’t necessarily have to close as a result of a student or staffer testing positive.

“There can be a situation where you only have a few kids in a class – maybe six, eight or 10,” Mueller said. When a school becomes aware of a positive case on campus, the district must report the case to the county public health department.

There are many exceptions to the rules. For example, if a teacher’s role requires them to be near students who are immunosuppressed, they must quarantine for a longer length of time even if they are vaccinated or have recovered from the virus within the last 90 days. Or if a student is wearing a mask and exposed to another student who is wearing a mask in a classroom, there’s less of a chance they’ll have to quarantine. But if those same children are unmasked on the playground, there is different guidance.

The responsibility to communicate to parents about the protocols has largely been in the hands of school leaders. But the county’s chart can also help parents decide what’s in their child’s best interest.


In Escondido, the district is still a couple of weeks out from the start of the new school year. Officials there are in the process of updating their quarantine protocols to reflect the latest clarifications and any updates from county health officials, Michelle Breier, a spokeswoman for the Escondido Union School District, told Voice of San Diego.

As schools prepare to open, McCarthy and Mueller said school leaders should be ramping up testing to make it more accessible to students and parents. Despite mass quarantines of classrooms at Chula Vista Elementary, the district is offering a robust COVID-19 testing program, said Anthony Millican, a spokesman for the Chula Vista Elementary School District. He said the uptick in testing has contributed to the amount of positive cases identified in the district.

“The number involving students and staff represents a small fraction of our nearly 30,000 student enrollment — less than 1 percent,” Millican said.

He said his district and others are following guidance from Dr. Naomi Bardach, the state lead for the Safe Schools for All Team, who said most of the cases involved community spread, meaning a staff member or student was in close contact with someone at home who was sick.

“COVID-19 tests are only one part of a broader safety plan,” Millican wrote in an email. “Vaccinations, social distancing, ventilation, regular cleaning, contact tracing and masking are also important ways to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit news organization.
Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit news organization.

Corrected:
Kayla Jimenez is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about communities, politics and regional issues in North County. Kayla can be reached at kayla.jimenez@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.