Parents send teen positive for COVID-19 to school and infuriate the community

Sept. 22, 2020

Kids returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic are doing their best to practice social distancing, wear face masks and to stay home if they’ve been exposed to or exhibit symptoms of the virus. Unfortunately, not every family is choosing to follow those guidelines. Close to 30 high school students have been asked to quarantine at an Attleboro, Massachusetts, high school after a teen returned to classes despite testing positive for COVID-19. 

What happened in Attleboro

Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux confirms to CNN that the student was tested for the virus on September 9 and received a positive result on September 11. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend COVID-19 patients self-isolate for at least 10 days following a positive test or the onset of symptoms of the virus, the sick student returned to school on September 14, just five days after being tested.

In total, 28 students had contact with the infected teen and are now being asked to quarantine at home for two weeks. Heroux tells CNN the family of the sick student claims a doctor gave them the all-clear to head back to class, but he’s seen no evidence to support that claim. 

“It’s imperative that parents keep their kids home if the kids are COVID positive,” he writes in a statement posted to his Facebook page. “Additionally, if test results are pending, kids should be kept home. If kids are showing any symptoms of COVID-19, they should probably get a test. If anyone has come into contact with a COVID-19 confirmed individual, it’s best to contact either the school nurse or the city nurse to go over the different situations and what to do.”

How the community has responded 

Many Attleboro parents are angry that a sick child was sent to school. In the discussion on Heroux’s Facebook posts, people criticized the teen’s parents and even demanded that they pay a fine or face other consequences.

“This was unconscionable of this family to knowingly send their child to school with COVID-19,” one person writes. “Who else in that family has it, and who else are they spreading it to in their community, their grocery stores and their neighbors?”

Another person asked, “Why aren’t the parents fined? If someone travels to a state not on the low-risk list and doesn’t quarantine, it’s $500 a day for a fine, I believe. Why isn’t there a fine for a parent sending a child to school they knew was COVID-19 positive? They need to be held accountable!”

In Massachusetts, there have been at least 127,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 9,200 deaths. Heroux also says there have been “at least a half a dozen other cases of a student showing up at school in Massachusetts the first week of school and knowingly being COVID positive.” Not every instance has been reported to the media.

While Heroux urges all students to take precautions and stay home while sick, he also points out how difficult it is to prevent COVID-19 transmission at school.

“The school department has been taking great precautions to make sure that our 6,000 students will be as safe as possible under the circumstances,” he writes. “Additionally, the city health department is working seven days a week and working with state contact tracing teams. Having said that, the school superintendent and I are both in agreement that as a matter of sheer probability, there is no way to guarantee that all students in the school are COVID-19 negative.”

What this means for students nationwide

The Attleboro incident has garnered national attention because it’s a scenario many parents fear as kids head back to school. Similar incidents have already happened in Connecticut and New Jersey, where parents sent kids to school with pending COVID-19 tests. In both instances, the children later received positive test results.

How safe kids will be at school depends on a number of factors, including which precautionary measures the individual school has in place and the number of local COVID-19 cases. Ideally, every student should be following CDC guidelines and staying home when sick, but the situation is further complicated by the needs and opinions of individual families. 

Some families may be lax with guidelines because they don’t believe the virus is a threat. About 32% of respondents to a July survey by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center mistakenly believe the CDC exaggerated the threat of COVID-19. Even if families are taking the virus seriously, many parents are either working or are one of the 13.6 million Americans struggling to find work, and they may have limited access to childcare if a sick child needs to stay home.

The pandemic has presented a complex and challenging situation for every parent, student and school administrator. At the very least, this story is an important reminder that even one sick child can have a major impact on the students and faculty around them at school. Isolating at home is not easy or convenient for anyone, but it’s the best possible way to ensure the safety of others.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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