New advisories aimed at reducing school quarantines are under review by the St. Joseph School District, but when and how it will adopt them, if at all, is not yet clear.

The big new idea, entitled “Test to Stay” contained within a complex four-part COVID-19 protocol developed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, pertains to students and “close contacts.”

“The four options are based on factors such as an individual’s vaccination status, recent history of infection and consistent and correct mask use,” the department said in an explanatory document. “These options were developed to balance the risk of transmission ... in the school setting and to keep students, teachers and staff in school.”

In most cases, students are given a 10-day home stay if they are unmasked, unvaccinated (as are all under age 12) and spent too much time close to a person who tests positive for the virus. If adopted, Test to Stay would put a stopper on home stays for anyone who receives three negative tests in a row, within a week after their “close contact.”

“I’m not a fan of sending well kids home anyway,” said Maria Burnham, the district’s coordinator of nursing services. “So I do see that we could potentially keep more kids in school.”

Burnham said time is needed to figure out how these rules mesh with what the district already is doing and if changes need to be made. That decision rests with Doug Van Zyl, superintendent of schools, in coordination with Debra Bradley, the local health director. Bradley was not available for comment.

The new DESE rules call for individual school nurses to do the three-count tests at their respective schools. To date, the district has had a centralized location for COVID-19 testing via a clinic at Carden Park Elementary School. Whether and how it could continue to do that centralized testing is a key factor for Burnham to figure out, she said.

The other wild card is what might be thought of as the district’s magic number: 5% or less. Once Buchanan County’s COVID-19 test positivity rate falls below that percentage on average for more than a week, the district will lift its face-covering mandate. This contrasts with DESE’s recommendation that students continue to wear face coverings if unvaccinated.

The county is on track to realize the magic number, and current district quarantines, at 13 students and one staff member, are considerably lower than a month ago (43 and three, respectively). This is why local leaders have concluded they need to have some conversations about what to do.

“There’s a lot for me to try to decipher as I look through all of these pages,” Burnham said. “It’s great on paper, but how are we going to make it work in this particular community? It may take a little bit of time.”

Marcus Clem can be reached at marcus.clem@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowClem

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