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Loosened quarantine rules for Arkansas public schools, explained

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nyssa Kruse | October 21, 2021 at 12:02 p.m.
Students make their way to their buses as school lets out on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at Booker Arts Magnet Elementary School in Little Rock. A shortage of school bus drivers across the country is also affecting the Little Rock School District and others across the state. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

This story is a part of The Article, your guide to Arkansas news and culture, presented by the Democrat-Gazette. Sign up for The Article's weekly newsletter here or to see stories that have appeared in past newsletters, go here.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced this week that he would loosen the standards for quarantining students and staff at elementary and secondary schools in the state, citing the overall decrease in new covid-19 cases and the need to address student learning loss.

Back up: What were the existing quarantine rules for schools?

Vaccinated students and staff in public schools are not required to quarantine if exposed to covid-19.

Until now, those who are unvaccinated and were exposed did not have to quarantine if:

  • They had recovered from covid-19 in the last three months
  • They and the infected person wore masks at the time of exposure
  • The infected person was further than 6 feet away or the interaction lasted less than 15 minutes within a 24-hour period
  • They agreed to regular rapid testing (if their school adopted such a program)
  • The school has at least 70% of students and staff vaccinated and adopted that as an exception to quarantine requirements

What rule did Hutchinson change?

Hutchinson said that elementary and secondary schools will be able to use a distance of 3 feet, instead of 6 feet, to determine who needs to quarantine after a student or employee tests positive for covid-19.

Hutchinson said he made the decision in hopes of balancing public health needs with the need to keep students in the classroom, especially because of learning loss over the last year and a half.

Health Secretary Jose Romero said the new guideline will apply only to elementary and secondary schools, with a distance of 6 feet still being used to determine quarantines for colleges and universities and child care centers.

He said if school cases tick up following the rule change, the Health Department would recommend to the governor using six feet again for the quarantine rules.

What are cases like at schools in the state right now?

The number of active cases among public elementary and secondary schools students and employees, according to a Health Department report, fell Monday by 261, to 1,080. That’s the lowest level so far this school year.

The number is less than a quarter of the all-time high it reached in early September, although it remains above the number of active cases from the same point last year.

However, a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences report this week warned that while new cases are expected overall to continue trending down, new cases among children have been going up — a trend expected to continue.

Read more about the rule change from the governor, as well as the UAMS report, from reporter Andy Davis.

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