As many children prepare to go back to in-person school in the fall, parents are wondering what will happen if and when Covid-19 affects a student or staff member at their school. This is just one of the questions that ParentsTogether posed to doctors Dara Kass, M.D., and Arabia Mollette, M.D., in a Facebook Live Q&A about school safety during the pandemic. So what did they have to say about how to respond to a positive Covid-19 test?
Parents should focus on symptoms more than test results
A crucial point that the doctors drove home was that symptoms will be more relevant than a positive test result in your school. It’s completely understandable that parents would be concerned about positive Covid-19 test results, but what they’ll be dealing with on a much more regular basis are students and faculty being symptomatic throughout the school year.
In Dr. Kass’s words, “What you need to worry about is not ‘Is there a positive test next to my child?’ but ‘What happens when there’s a kid who’s symptomatic in my classroom?’ Because that’s going to happen a lot more frequently. What is the school’s plan for that?”
What this means is that whenever a student or teacher is sent home because they don’t feel well, your entire class or school will need a plan for how to proceed while they wait to find out if those symptoms are Covid-related. That’s because Covid-19 symptoms can include complaints that are very common in other illnesses too, such as fever, chills, cough, fatigue, body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. No one wants to overreact to every cold or flu bug that a student or administrator catches—because we all know how common those are, even during a normal school year—but at the same time, everyone’s health and safety depends on Covid-19 symptoms being taken seriously.
Parents should know—and be comfortable with—the school’s plan
“In your school there should be a very clear protocol for what happens with a symptomatic child or staff member in the classroom, and then a positive student or staff member in the classroom,” Dr. Kass explains. “Those are two different things.” And districts should have a plan for both scenarios.
When there’s a student or staff member with symptoms
Dr. Mollette and Dr. Kass agree that the sick classmate or teacher should quarantine right away and get a Covid-19 test as soon as possible, but even if the test comes back negative, the sick person will need to stay home until their symptoms are gone. The sick person should not return to school until they have proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test and are symptom-free. This is the only way to get around the possibility of “false negatives,” or testing negative for the virus even when you’re actually infected.
Keep in mind that, depending on your school’s policy, others who have been in contact with the sick student or teacher may also have to stay home while the test results are processed. The CDC defines possible exposure by “close contact” as being fewer than six feet away from the person with Covid-19 for at least 15 minutes. However, some schools may mandate that the entire class must stay home if they have a symptomatic class member. Make sure your school has a clear policy that outlines these details.
When there’s a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the classroom
If there is a confirmed positive Covid-19 case in your child’s class, your entire class and teacher should stay home and quarantine for 10 to 14 days. However, Dr. Mollette warned that you should keep an eye out for symptoms in your household even more than two weeks after a possible exposure, because that 14-day window of symptoms showing up in a potential infection is by no means a guarantee.
Dr. Kass also pointed out that if positive cases are detected in multiple classes in the school, the whole school may have to switch to remote learning for a while to mitigate the risk of community spread, so parents need to be prepared for this scenario. Find out what your school’s specific criteria is for making the switch to virtual learning.
If an ill student or positive Covid-19 test ends up disrupting your child’s school routine sometime during this school year, just remember that, as Dr. Kass stated, “The most important thing is kindness. Anybody can get the virus.” None of us have much control over the spread of the coronavirus, and worrying that you may have unknowingly infected someone else can be almost as hard as getting sick yourself.
See the full Q&A video for more guidance and information on how to navigate this unprecedented back-to-school moment as a parent during the coronavirus pandemic.