With the calendar turning to August, school districts across Wisconsin are gearing up for another school year impacted by COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) caused a stir at the end of July when it issued new guidance recommending that students return to fully in-person learning this Fall and that all students, staff, and visitors wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. However, the masking guidance is not the CDC’s only new guidance with significant implications for schools.
On August 5, 2021, the CDC also updated its guidance regarding COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing in schools. The updated guidance revises the CDC’s recommendations to account for fully vaccinated individuals as well as new COVID-19 mutations such as the Delta variant. The CDC continues to encourage schools to isolate students, staff, and other individuals in the school environment who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 regardless of their vaccination status.
The CDC also encourages schools to conduct contact tracing to assess the risk of exposure to others after a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. According to the updated guidance, schools should not consider vaccination status when determining whether an individual had close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual during the infectious period. Further, the updated guidance recommends that all close contacts, including vaccinated individuals, receive a COVID-19 test three (3) to five (5) days after their last exposure to the COVID-19 positive individual.
However, an individual’s vaccination status may impact their need to quarantine, according to the updated CDC guidance. Close contacts who are fully vaccinated and show no signs of COVID-19 no longer need to quarantine, but they are encouraged to wear a mask for fourteen (14) days after exposure when they are indoors in public. Similarly, close contacts who had COVID-19 within the previous three (3) months and recovered do not need to quarantine unless they show symptoms of COVID-19.
School districts planning to rely on vaccination status to determine whether close contacts must quarantine should determine how it will confirm vaccination status and communicate the process to parents and staff. The Wisconsin Immunization Registry (WIR) is one resource that parents and staff can use to substantiate vaccination status. The WIR is a centralized database of immunization records. Individuals can print a report from the database by providing the individual’s name and date of birth along with their social security number, Medicaid identification number, or Health Care Member Identification number.
The WIR is a convenient source for immunization records. Still, school districts should consult their legal counsel regarding privacy issues before accessing the database to confirm student or staff vaccination status. There are also some practical limitations to the WIR. Most, but not all, Wisconsin healthcare providers report vaccination records to the WIR. Further, the WIR may not include vaccinations received in other states. Thus, some vaccinated individuals will not have a record of vaccination in the WIR. School districts should offer parents and staff multiple methods to substantiate vaccination status if the school district opts to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in terms of any protective measures. School districts learned a great deal during the 2020-2021 school year about responding to COVID-19 cases that will carry over to this year. Undoubtedly, the 2021-2022 school year will raise new issues as more students become eligible for the vaccination and potentially new COVID-19 variants emerge. Eighteen (18) months have passed since Governor Evers issued the first public health orders regarding COVID-19. Many are eager to get past the pandemic and return to normalcy and focus on educating students. Despite possible fatigue from addressing COVID-19 issues, school districts are well-advised to remain vigilant in monitoring new developments surrounding COVID-19 and considering how they may impact the school district’s response to COVID-19 cases in the school environment.
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or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, S.C., attorney.