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Chesterfield Families Confused by COVID-19 School Quarantine Rules

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For some families in the Chesterfield County School District, life under quarantine has been a challenge with confusing directions from schools about how long positive or not-positive students need to quarantine; and filled with a lack of instruction to fulfill class assignments from teachers who are already stretched thin. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News) 

Since this story aired, Chesterfield Schools has since updated their COVID-19 Dashboard to include many of the requests from this article.

Theresa Rittman’s family had a rough start this school year. All but one of her family of five got COVID-19 — her oldest escaped getting the virus. 

“He's in the classroom, and he's healthy. It's his birthday today,” Rittman said.

Rittman’s three children cover the spectrum of schools in Chesterfield County: one’s in elementary, another in middle and the oldest is in high school. Most of the family, save for the two youngest who are under 12, are vaccinated. But the virus still found a way into the Rittman family, starting with her youngest daughter, who is a cheerleader.

“There was an outbreak within the cheerleading squad and she was exposed that way,” Rittman said. “She didn't even make it through the full first day of school.”

Rittman was notified by the school nurse what the expectations were for quarantining students who’d been exposed. But a few days later, her daughter tested positive. 

“And so the quarantine rules kind of changed for that based on a positive test result,” Rittman said. “So she has to be home for 10 days following the positive tests, following the first day of symptoms. [So] 10 days and one day symptom free before she can return.”

Things in the Rittman house kept going downhill after that. Because of their daughter testing positive, they kept their middle schooler home as a precautionary measure. 

“In the meantime, the school called to say that he had been exposed at school by a classmate the day prior,” Rittman said. 

After a week of quarantine following that contact, her son then tested positive. 

“So he's got another 14 days. He's already been out for a week,” Rittman said.

His school sent the family a letter explaining the expectations of quarantining. But it seemed different than what her daughter initially received about quarantining before she tested positive.

“That's a little bit more confusing. It's almost more clear what you're supposed to do if they test positive,” Rittman said. “It's less clear if they're just exposed.”

Since school started in August, hundreds of Chesterfield County students have also tested positive for COVID-19. It’s not just Rittman who says the protocols have been confusing. Other parents VPM spoke to echoed her concerns. Chesterfield County did not respond to VPM.

Another parent, Kasey Terrill, says her fifth grader didn’t test positive but was sent into quarantine for being in close contact with a student who did. Terrill said it was confusing as to how long her son would have to stay at home and if he would be able to go back to class earlier if certain circumstances were met.

“I've heard from other parents you could test,” Terrill said. “And [I’ve] also, I've seen some things from CDC and from the Virginia Health Department that in certain circumstances after day five, you can have a test and after day seven, if you test negative and get a doctor's note, you can come back to school on day eight or something along those lines.”

The Chesterfield district does have written guidelines posted on their website that break down the length of time for students to quarantine depending on if they’ve tested positive or have been exposed.

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Basically, if a student has been in close contact with a student who tests positive, but is fully vaccinated and shows no symptoms, they do not need to be quarantined. If the child is not fully vaccinated or has tested positive, then it’s a 14-day quarantine. 

Covid Dashboards & School Guidance

Chesterfield’s online COVID-19 guidance includes recommendations from the CDC and VDH as well as a daily running log of students and staff who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. 

But for Terrill, that daily list isn’t enough. She’d also like to see the numbers of quarantined students and where they contracted the virus.

“I feel like parents should know the exact circumstances,” Terrill said. “You don't have to expose who the child was. But you should at least know like, was it in a bus full of kids? Or was this outside? Did they have a mask on? Did they not have a mask on? Was it in the classroom? Is it somebody they sit next to? You know what I mean? There's so many different circumstances.”

Terrill isn’t the only parent who wants to see quarantine numbers listed on the district’s website. 

“I imagine I'm in the minority of people that wake up and the first thing they do is go and look at the COVID dashboard on the Virginia Department of Health,” said parent Grace Olsen. She wanted better information from the school district last year. 

“I know for myself, as a parent, I do have anxiety about sending my child to school,” Olsen said. “And for me, the way I help alleviate that anxiety is to know as much as I possibly can. So I want as much data as I can get.”

Olsen works as a data analyst. So last year, she created her own website that combines information from Chesterfield and Henrico schools with data from the VDH. 

“One thing that I find kind of frustrating because I want all the data available, is the fact that Chesterfield has not put out quarantine numbers,” Olsen said. “I did a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request last spring to get the numbers and that was, that was very enlightening.”

The district granted her request but failed to redact personal information. She immediately informed the district about its mistake. 

Olsen said her website is simply a way for families to be more informed about what’s going on in the county and within the school district, not a political statement. 

“I'm not an epidemiologist, I'm not a statistician,” she said, adding that people can read the same data and interpret it differently. “I feel like I've put those caveats up there. I'm not trying to interpret anything. I just wanted an easier way to look at the data.”

Olsen’s dashboard, called “Chesterfield Project Restart: By the Numbers. Transparency and Data,” features graphs and charts showing breakdowns by age and school. It also makes comparisons to cases in Henrico schools. She says she wishes CCPS would implement a dashboard similar to ones she’s visited online from other Virginia school districts, such as Henrico, Albemarle, Roanoke, Fauquier, Spotsylvania and Fluvanna, where quarantine numbers are listed.

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Screen shot from Grace Olsen's dashboard *(numbers may have changed since taken)

Since launching her dashboard, Olsen says the number of visits has grown from just a dozen to thousands. Like Terrill and Rittman, Olsen said she’d like to see a more consistent quarantine policy from the school district. 

“This is something I would have hoped they would have gotten together over the summer before the school year started,” Olsen said.

More Instruction Needed While In Quarantine

The guidelines around quarantining were only half the issue for Rittman. 

“They're not providing us with any education, really,” she said.

Rittman said her kids have been sent assignments through the school’s online portal with no directions. So she wants the district to do what it did last year.

“The teacher would just turn on a Google Meet. And so the kids at home could hear the lecture. And I don't know why that's not being offered for the kids that are quarantined,” Rittman said.

Rittman said she doesn’t want to make work harder for teachers but says all students need to be included in classroom lessons. 

Chesterfield offers a stand-alone Virtual Academy for students in Kindergarten through the 8th grade. But it has a wait list of 200 people. They also offer online courses for high school students, called “CCPS Online,” which has been in place for almost two decades.

All three parents say they understand that the district, the teachers and the schools are stretched thin when it comes to staffing , time and resources. But they’d like to see more guidance and transparency when it comes to what measures are being taken  to get through the pandemic.