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story.lead_photo.caption Students and teachers get settled in their classrooms at Foundation Preparatory School as the process of classroom learning returns during the coronavirus in New Orleans on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. It was the first day of in-person learning for fifth-12th grade public school students in Orleans Parish. (Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)

BATON ROUGE -- Leaders of several Louisiana public school systems Monday called on state officials to relax coronavirus quarantine rules that have sent thousands of students home from school because they have been in close proximity to people who tested positive for covid-19.

But state health officials said they aren't recommending any changes to the quarantine regulations as Louisiana sees its third spike in coronavirus cases, with hospitals cautioning they are concerned the latest surge will overwhelm them.

School superintendents from Ascension, West Baton Rouge, Rapides and Livingston parishes told lawmakers that too many students are missing in-person classroom instruction because they have been sent home for 14 days to quarantine.

"We have a lot of healthy kids who are home when they don't need to be," West Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Wesley Watts told the House health committee. "We're not asking to do away with quarantine. We're just asking for some modifications."

That argument hasn't persuaded the Louisiana Department of Health, which helped set the school quarantines based on advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We continue to follow CDC guidance on quarantine and so are not recommending any changes to K-12 guidance at this time," Health Department spokeswoman Aly Neel said in a statement after the hearing.

More than 11,000 new infections of the covid-19 disease caused by the virus have been confirmed in the state over the past week, and 6,039 people in Louisiana are confirmed to have died from the disease since March, according to the health department.

Louisiana's schools are required to follow virus safety guidelines adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, based on recommendations from the health department.

Those guidelines require anyone considered to be in "close contact" to someone who tested positive for covid-19 or has symptoms of the disease to stay home for 14 days. Close contact is defined as anyone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.

Superintendents said those rules are too strict, sending entire classrooms home where online accessibility to virtual learning can be spotty.

Rapides Parish Superintendent Jeff Powell said his schools have quarantined nearly 4,100 students this year, with 18 students on average sent home for each positive coronavirus test. Livingston Parish Superintendent Joe Murphy said that of the 2,600 students in his system sent home to quarantine because of exposure risk, 162 have had to isolate more than once.

"We do believe the best place for them to be is in our school buildings," said Ascension Parish Superintendent David Alexander.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he asked the health department to consider the approach used in Missouri, where only students who are sick or test positive must isolate -- if all students in close contact were wearing masks.

"The more students that we have face to face (for instruction), we think our academic outcomes will be stronger," Brumley said Monday. "That's why if this is an opportunity where we have the potential for an adjustment safely, we would probably want to do that."

But Brumley is advising the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to follow health department recommendations: "They're the experts on the virus."

And the health department said the Missouri school quarantine rules run afoul of the CDC guidance.

The local superintendents said they're seeing only small percentages of students forced to quarantine actually getting sick or testing positive.

But Democratic state Rep. Dustin Miller, a nurse practitioner from Opelousas, noted that doesn't mean the students didn't have the coronavirus. He said many who spread the virus never show symptoms -- and often never get tested, so it's unclear how many students forced to quarantine were infected.

Of the quarantine rules, Miller said: "That's what the science tells us to do."

State Rep. Raymond Crews, a Republican from Bossier City, who has opposed all of Louisiana's coronavirus restrictions, said the 14-day quarantine requirement damages students' education and harms their health. He said the state should find other ways to protect people most vulnerable to severe impacts from covid-19.

"We are hurting the children to help everyone else," Crews said.

A few parents and students also testified against the coronavirus rules.

"We are losing what is supposed to be the best year of high school because of covid," said Brennan Falgout, a senior at Central Lafourche High School. He told lawmakers: "I'm hoping we can find an answer to this and try to save the rest of the senior year that I have."

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