NORTH SMITHFIELD – School leaders across the state are pushing for changes to a bus quarantine policy that they say is keeping too many students home from school.
North Smithfield Supt. Michael St. Jean told members of the School Committee last week that he and other superintendents are advocating with the Rhode Island Department of Health to change the policy regarding how many students need to quarantine after a positive COVID-19 case on a school bus. St. Jean said the current quarantine rules for buses are stricter than those in place for classrooms.
“We have had multiple meetings with the Department of Health, with the Rhode Island Department of Education, to plead with them to please look at the bus quarantine rules. Because myself, the other superintendents across the state, feel that they are too extreme,” he said.
Under the current guidance, students sitting two rows in front of and two rows behind an individual, as well as in the five rows across the aisle, are required to quarantine in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.
By contrast, only those within six feet of an individual are considered close contacts in a classroom setting. In both cases, students can be exempted from the full quarantine if they are vaccinated, have had COVID-19 within the previous 90 days or receive a negative COVID-19 test.
St. Jean said that since the start of the school year, the district has had 14 positive cases at North Smithfield Elementary School, two cases at North Smithfield Middle School and three cases at North Smithfield High School. A majority of the students who had to quarantine as a result of those cases, he said, were considered a close contact on the bus and not in a classroom setting.
Despite the strict quarantine rules, St. Jean said the district is not seeing COVID-19 spread on its school buses. He advised parents who are concerned about their children missing school to drive them to school.
“If you are concerned that your child may have to be quarantined because of where he or she sits on the bus, and have the ability to transport your student to and from school, don’t ride the bus until we can get these rules changed,” he said.
In Woonsocket Supt. Patrick McGee said that he also has concerns about the state’s quarantine guidance for buses. While Woonsocket has not seen as high a percentage of their close contacts resulting from buses, he said, he agrees that the policy is too strict.
“In class, you don’t have to quarantine more than six feet away if they have a mask,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense that the buses are more stringent if the windows are open and the air is blowing through in that environment.”
McGee said that superintendents are trying to keep as many students in school as possible. Most districts do not have distance learning options in place this year, which means students on quarantine are left to work at home independently.
“That just makes our job even more challenging when it doesn’t seem to make total sense. It doesn’t seem to be completely logical,” he said.
Complicating the issue is a shortage of bus monitors and drivers. Last week, a parent of a student at Globe Park Elementary School reached out to The Valley Breeze to express concern that his daughter’s bus was not using the assigned seating chart. Keith Dion of Woonsocket said the school was unaware of the issue, leading to concerns that any close contacts of a positive case would not be identified correctly.
“Not knowing which students are actually coming into contact with the positive case will lead to incorrect reporting to the RIDOH and the wrong people getting phone calls,” Dion said.
Ed Flavin, a spokesman for Durham School Services, said the bus company is aware of the issue, which stemmed from a shortage in bus monitors. On the day Dion sent his complaint, he said, that particular bus did not have a monitor due to the nationwide shortage in bus staffing. After getting in their assigned seats, he said, students got up and changed their seats during the bus ride once the driver had begun the route.
“Durham School Services uses assigned seating on all its buses throughout Rhode Island as directed by state health and CDC guidelines,” he said.
McGee said he understands the staffing shortage but added that the bus company needs to ensure the seating chart is updated so school staff know who to contact trace.
“I know they’re struggling. It’s just a tough situation,” he said. “I can understand that they’re in a difficult position, and so are we.”