Frisco ISD officials are rolling the dice with COVID-19 and changing their policy on COVID-19 exposure and when quarantine due to exposure needs to occur.

On Wednesday, Frisco ISD announced that they plan to follow the Texas Education Agency’s definition of close contact, which will help limit the number of students who need to be quarantined. The TEA defines close contact as:

  • “being directly exposed to infectious secretions (e.g., being coughed on); or
  • “being within 6 feet for a largely uninterrupted or sustained extended contact period throughout the course of a day of approximately 15 minutes; however, additional factors like case/contact masking (i.e., both the infectious individual and the potential close contact have been consistently and properly masked), ventilation, presence of dividers, and case symptomatology may affect this determination.”

Both instances, the TEA reports, apply only if close contact occurred during the infectious period, defined as two days prior to symptom onset to 10 days after. As for asymptomatic individuals with COVID-19, the infectious period is two days prior to the confirmed test and continuing for 10 days following it.

“By adopting this definition of close contact, Frisco ISD will no longer require students and staff who were within six feet of a COVID-positive individual for 15 minutes or more to quarantine if face coverings were consistently worn by both people,” the district posted on its website Wednesday.

The district argues that the TEA’s definition allows them to consider mitigating factors — for example, proper wearing of face masks — when deciding if students needs to quarantine.

According to current CDC guidelines, if you have been exposed to people with known or suspected COVID-19, you are supposed to quarantine for 14 days after last exposure and maintain social distance (at least 6 feet) from others at all times as well as self monitor for symptoms regardless of mitigating factors.

Or as the CDC highlights on its website:

“Quarantine is used to keep someone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 away from others. Quarantine helps prevent spread of disease that can occur before a person knows they are sick or if they are infected with the virus without feeling symptoms. People in quarantine should stay home, separate themselves from others, monitor their health, and follow directions from their state or local health department.”

Frisco ISD officials said that they’ve spoken with health experts, and are simply falling in line with what neighboring school districts are doing. The health experts in this case, according to a Frisco ISD spokesperson, is Dr. Mark Gamber, an emergency medicine specialist and the health authority for the City of Frisco and medical director for the Plano and Frisco Fire Departments.

They also pointed out that they have been keeping track of COVID-19 numbers related to Frisco ISD and staff members and that they are “unaware of any cases of school-based transmission when face coverings have been worn,” but also acknowledge that “it is not possible to say definitively where or from whom someone caught the virus.”

Courtesy of the CDC website

In an Oct. 14 email, Meghan Cone, Frisco ISD assistant communications director, stressed that their new definition is consistent with TEA guidance and reiterated that the new policy change is already in practice in neighboring districts. “It should be noted that Frisco ISD has consulted with numerous health agencies and medical professionals throughout our response to COVID-19, and their recommendations do not always align.

“That is the case here with regard to quarantine when face coverings have been properly and consistently worn.”

On Tuesday evening, the Frisco ISD school board met to discuss this change in protocol and mentioned that another driving factor for this change is the fact that 985 students and staff have been quarantined since late July due to direct COVID-19 exposure and only 9 of those quarantined caught the virus, allegedly from places on campus where masks aren’t often worn like the lunch room or athletics. “As of right now we are unaware of any cases that have been contracted on campus when wearing masks.”

Dan Stockton, Frisco ISD’s executive director of government and legal affairs, said in a news release: “So far our data has shown that the risk of transmission on campus is low when face coverings are worn. We will continue to monitor our data as we implement this change, and we are prepared to reverse course as necessary if we experience a significant increase in case numbers.”

Courtesy of the CDC website

A recent study by Duke University tested face mask efficacy for filtering expelled COVID-19 droplets during speech. Researchers tested 14 commonly available masks or mask alternatives, including a professionally fit-tested N95 mask, most commonly used by healthcare professionals. They used a small control group and found, as other CDC and health experts claim, that some masks do seem to help limit the spread, but other masks — particularly the neck gaiter — turn larger droplets into a multitude of smaller droplets.

“Determining mask efficacy is a complex topic that is still an active field of research, made even more complicated because the infection pathways for COVID-19 are not yet fully understood and are complicated by many factors such as the route of transmission, correct fit and usage of masks, and environmental variables,” researchers wrote in the Sept. 2 study.  

Frisco ISD’s previous “close contact” definition fell in line with the CDC’s definition: “within 6 feet of an individual with a confirmed case for a cumulative 15 minutes or more during the time the individual remains infectious or being directly exposed to infectious secretions (e.g. being coughed or sneezed on).”

The CDC defines close contact as:

  • You were within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more.
  • You provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19
  • You had direct physical contact with the person
  • You shared eating or drinking utensils
  • They sneezed, coughed, or somehow got respiratory droplets on you.

But it doesn’t say that none of this applies if you are both wearing a mask.

The CDC also stresses: “COVID-19 is a newly identified disease caused by the virus, SARS-CoV-2. Scientists are still learning about how it spreads, how it impacts children, and what role children may play in its spread.”

Local Profile reached out to Dr. Mike Waldrip, Frisco ISD superintendent, but he declined to be interviewed. Instead he sent this short prepared quote:

“This decision was not reached without significant consideration of both the possible health consequences and the impact on staff, students, and their families when they are required to quarantine,” he wrote. “As educators, we must consider the academic, social, and emotional wellbeing of our students and do what we believe is best for the whole child and community.”

Christian McPhate

Christian McPhate is the managing editor of Local Profile. He has been working as a journalist for more than a decade. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Dallas Morning News,...