‘Don’t ride the bus’: School officials look to change RIDOH quarantine rules for student transit

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Noting that the majority of students who are asked to stay home from school and quarantine must do so due to the Rhode Island Department of Health’s COVID-19 protocols for bussing, North Smithfield Supt. Michael St. Jean is encouraging parents to drive their kids to school.

And he’s just one of several district leaders asking RIDOH to loosen quarantine guidelines for student transportation, noting that spread of the virus is not happening on the way to and from schools.

“If you are afraid that your child might have to be quarantined due to where he or she sits on the bus, and you have the ability to transport your kid to school, until we get these rules changed, don’t ride the bus,” St. Jean said at a meeting with the School Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 21.

In school buildings, St. Jean noted that the rules have improved since 2020, when a case or two could close down an entire classroom. Vaccinated students who have close contact with a positive case no longer need to quarantine, nor do students wearing masks who have maintained the required three foot radius.

At the start of the school year, “We were very excited that the Department of Health had dialed it back on quarantine rules,” St. Jean said.

“Something went wrong,” he added.

On buses, when a student tests positive, the child sitting next to him or her must quarantine, along with all students sitting two seats in front, two seats in back and in the five parallel rows across the aisle.

“That is a large piece of the bus that now has to quarantine,” St. Jean told the committee and parents at the meeting this week.

And according to the superintendent, district data shows that buses are not where spread of the virus typically occurs. Of the RIDOH transportation guidelines he said, “It doesn’t necessarily match the reality.”

“We don’t want bus ridership to be a thing that keeps a student at home,” he said. “We’re not getting spread of COVID from the bus, but because of the rules we have to quarantine a lot of students, and we’re trying to change that.”

St. Jean said he and other area school leaders are petitioning RIDOH to look at the guidelines in hopes to be able to keep more kids in the classroom.

Burrillville Supt. Michael Sollitto said that while his district’s quarantine numbers have been relatively low so far, the majority of students who have been sent home for testing were due to the bus rules for close contacts.

“I am in total agreement with Superintendent St. Jean,” said Sollitto. “The guidance from RIDOH seems contradictory.” 

“Students that are close contacts in a classroom setting do not have to quarantine but those on a school bus do,” Sollitto said. “This is required even though  buses have windows open for air circulation and the seats often extend above the head of young students. If this guidance was changed to mirror the classroom exemption, we would have a much better chance of keeping our students in school every day.”

In North Smithfield, St Jean said that since the start of school, 14 students and teachers at North Smithfield Elementary School have tested positive for COVID-19, along with two students at the middle school, and three at the high school.

As a result, 33 elementary school students were classified as close contacts and are waiting for PCR testing results to return, along with nine middle schoolers and five students at the high school.

And while some PCR results seem to come back quickly, others can take up to four days.

“If we can get some of the rules changed and limit the number of students in quarantine, we think we can keep more kids in the classroom,” St. Jean said.

In the meantime, parents hoping to keep their child out of quarantine are encouraged to drop them off at school. To keep up with increased traffic, the superintendent said he plans to hire crossing guards for the school parking lots, starting at NSES, for $15 an hour.

The superintendent also said that parents of kids with chronic conditions should communicate with the school nurse, so that the students is not sent home every week.

“I have headaches every single day, but I’m not necessarily going home,” St. Jean said. “I have a stuffy nose all the time. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have COVID.”

“If there’s an ongoing issue let the nurse know,” he said. “We’ll work with you.”

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