The Vermont Agency of Education on Thursday released updated contact tracing guidance for schools that is intended to limit the number of students who must quarantine after someone was infectious with COVID-19 while in school.
The recommendations — which were made with feedback from pediatricians, infectious disease specialists, the Vermont State School Nurses Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association — aim to safely keep students in school as much as possible and make the contact tracing process less burdensome. The new guidance is for schools that require universal masking.
The key difference is a change to the definition of a close contact. Anyone who has been within three feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period is considered a close contact. If it is not "reasonably possible" to determine close contacts that way, schools may use the four-hour rule, which would apply to those who were in the same classroom or pod as an infectious person for at least four hours.
In previous school guidance, a close contact was someone who was within six feet or less of an infectious person for 15 minutes or more.
School bus contact tracing guidance has also changed. Previously, any student within six feet of an infectious person on a school bus was considered a close contact. If no seating information was available for the school bus, all students riding the bus would be considered close contacts.
Now, only the seatmate of an infectious person is considered a close contact.
The guidance comes as Vermont begins to roll out its "Test to Stay" program. Rather than quarantine, the program allows students who are close contacts to take a rapid antigen test before going to class for up to seven days after the last known exposure to the virus.
Massachusetts also uses the three-foot rule and has eliminated contact tracing on buses. Close contacts in that state's test to stay program have had a very low positivity rate, according to the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports the new guidance.
COVID-19 transmission "occurs at a lower rate in the school setting compared to settings outside of the school environment," the group wrote in a statement released Thursday. "Pediatricians agree with aligning Vermont's definition of close contacts with that of the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to more precisely identify those students at highest risk for infection following in-school exposure while minimizing quarantines for low-risk, asymptomatic students."
The pediatricians say they continue to recommend universal masking in schools — regardless of student vaccination status or school vaccination rate — until those 12 and under have been vaccinated and local data shows substantially lower rates of COVID-19 transmission.
Vermont Agency of Education and Department of Health guidance currently says that school should require indoor universal masking for all students and staff until November 1. After that, the agencies say that those eligible for vaccination do not need to wear masks once the school vaccination rate among students is 80 percent or higher.
Earlier this month, Education Secretary Dan French made clear that the state's school contact tracing process would need to be changed in order to successfully implement test to stay.
"Contact tracing isn't necessarily helping us zero in on the cases," French said during an October 8 interview with Seven Days. "From a public health standpoint, it's capturing a lot of kids who are asymptomatic and [don't] have COVID. And on the educational side, it's keeping them out of school while we're doing that. And it's exceedingly labor intensive."
Another update to the original contact tracing guidance, made last month,
allows schools with students 12 and older to forego contact tracing if 80 percent are fully vaccinated.
Some schools, though, have decided to err on the side of caution. This week, Middlebury Union High School had a cluster of 10 COVID-19 cases, likely stemming from a gathering outside of school, according to lead school nurse and Addison Central School District COVID-19 coordinator Kelly Landwehr.
Though the high school's student vaccination rate is around 82 percent, Landwehr said she was still notifying close contacts, regardless of their vaccination status.
"We feel it's really important to continue contact tracing so we can identify who's at risk and give them that information and give them the opportunity to get tested and monitor for symptoms, and do what's right for them and their families," Landwehr said.