Health Dept. updates COVID-19 school guidelines
By John McPhaul
The Department of Health updated guidelines used by public and private schools from kindergarten (K) to grade 12 to temper with the current emergency situation and the guidelines issued in the current executive orders.
The updates emphasize general prevention measures to reduce the transmission and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the vaccination requirement for the school community, and the epidemiological surveillance system.
“The school surveillance system was successfully tested during the first semester of the 2021-2022 school year. Through these guidelines, we have further reinforced the measures in tune with the most recent information related to COVID-19,” Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López said in a written statement. “The recommendations made will give the school community the necessary peace for a safe school semester for our children.”
The guidelines for the prevention of COVID-19 in schools K-12 provide recommendations such as: including in school planning the use of staggered and rotating start, end or lunch times; splitting groups into A and B to ensure physical distancing; and the consumption of takeout food. In addition, they emphasize that teachers rotate during changes between classes and not students; and improved ventilation in classrooms by ensuring the entry of fresh air.
The Health Department’s Office of Epidemiology has detailed the essential prevention strategies where the nine primary areas to be executed during the school semester are emphasized. During recent weeks, Health Department teams have been consulting with various sectors of the education system to incorporate the measures in a way that takes into account the realities of the various communities.
The Health Department’s chief epidemiology officer, Dr. Melissa Marzán, noted that “the new guidelines emphasize the use of a mask, distancing and hygiene; spaces that guarantee proper ventilation and disinfection continue to be basic in the fight against COVID-19.”
“In parallel, we continue to strengthen surveillance measures. We will continue to use tests for the early identification of cases, clusters and outbreaks of COVID-19 and new definitions to establish quarantine measures,” she said.
Among the most significant changes in the COVID-19 prevention guidelines at the school level, the following stand out:
Masks: The type of masks allowed in schools has been reviewed: The use of cloth masks alone will not be allowed. A surgical mask covered by a cloth mask can be worn. The change is due to the greater protection provided given the emergence of new variants such as omicron.
Testing Strategies: The first of two testing strategies is through a project that involves clinical laboratories around the island and K-12 schools, public and private, with the intention of increasing accessibility to the tests of the epidemiological research system, while the second is to continue with the screening strategy of random tests. For the latter, each member of the school community must have delivered the informed consent document on or before Jan. 24.
Vaccination: The guidelines are tempered in line with the current executive orders that apply to the school setting: (1) OE-2021-075 on vaccination for children from 5 to 11 years of age with a date to present evidence of vaccination on Jan. 31, and vaccination of students age 12 and older and employees. (2) OE-2021-082 to require the booster dose for teaching staff, non-teaching staff and contractors. (3) OE-2022-003, which includes the booster dose as a requirement to attend in person. This applies to students 12 years of age or older who should have received a booster dose as of Feb. 15.
Quarantines: The definition of vaccinated was updated to ensure that quarantine decisions are based on the most rigorous scenario possible.
“Certainly, the effectiveness of the COVID-19 prevention guidelines at the school level has been demonstrated, by meeting the objective of mitigating the risks of transmission in the school context,” Marzán said. “Given the challenges of the new variant in circulation, the measures were updated to reinforce the testing, prevention and mitigation strategies.”