HANCOCK COUNTY — Contact tracing is one subject schools won’t be able to drop for the 2021-22 academic year.
The state says it’s necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The practice will require continued coordination and collaboration among school districts’ nursing, administrative and teaching staff. It also means students may have to stay home if identified as a close contact of someone with the novel coronavirus.
The Indiana Department of Health notes in its Fall 2021 Back to School Guidance that “COVID-19 is a reportable communicable disease, and as such, falls under the provision of the Communicable Disease Reporting Rule.”
Under that rule, “state and local health departments have the authority to implement prevention and control measures, including contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, for disease cases and outbreaks.
“Schools are required to report positive COVID-19 cases in much the same manner as other communicable diseases in the school environment, such as chicken pox and measles,” the guidance continues.
When COVID-19 cases are identified in a school, they must be reported to the local health department and entered into the state health department’s online portal.
According to the state health department, those who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for at least 10 days following the onset of symptoms, or, if asymptomatic, at least 10 days from the date of the collection of the positive test result. They must also be fever-free for at least 24 hours without fever-reducing medications, and show symptom improvement.
Cases and contacts
School districts find out about COVID-19 cases in their buildings through families reaching out directly, and from the Hancock County Health Department.
When school officials find out about a case, that initiates contact tracing, which is aided by checking seating charts and speaking with teachers to determine who the infected individual’s close contacts are.
“It worked very well for us last year,” said Harold Olin, superintendent of Greenfield-Central schools. “It certainly is time-consuming. It’s stressful on teachers to provide that and our assistant principals to provide that.”
The state defines a close contact as any individual within 6 feet of an infected person (confirmed by a test or a probable case) for a total of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period. Contacts are traced back to 48 hours from the start of symptoms in the infected individual. If they don’t have any symptoms, it’s 48 hours from the collection date of the positive test result.
“When we receive any word of a potential COVID-positive individual — student or other staff member — our nursing staff goes into action,” said Jack Parker, Mt. Vernon superintendent. “They immediately start pulling seating charts, they take tape measures to the rooms that a COVID-positive individual may have been present in.”
Seating charts aren’t limited to just classrooms. At Southern Hancock, for example, they’re also kept for clubs, athletics and labs.
“Each building has a designated administrator responsible for pulling those charts and identifying the close contacts when a positive test is received,” Wes Anderson, Southern Hancock’s director of school and community relations, told the Daily Reporter in an email.
George Philhower, superintendent for Eastern Hancock, said responses to COVID-19 cases would unfold similarly in his school district.
“Obviously our preference is not to have to do it, but we will just do our best when we’re notified that we have a positive case, that we’ll identify those students that are impacted, make contact and get them home,” Philhower said.
Close contacts with no symptoms, unless fully vaccinated or recovered from a COVID-19 infection within the past 90 days, must quarantine for one of three periods of time, depending on the circumstances.
The baseline is 14 days after the date of last exposure to the infected individual. However, a quarantine can shrink to 10 days if the contact follows additional precautions like monitoring for symptoms, wearing a mask at all times around other people and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others at all times (unless otherwise directed by a state or local health authority) for days 11 through 14. The period can shrink further, to seven days, with a negative COVID-19 test result occurring on day five or later, with the close contact following additional precautions during days eight through 14.
Greenfield-Central will continue to require 14-day quarantines for close contacts, as it did for the 2020-21 school year. Olin called it the “gold standard” and safest. He added that giving students a shorter quarantine in exchange for following the additional precautions through day 14 would be cumbersome. It would also be difficult to keep them from being identified as a close contact when required to wear a mask, eat alone and keep at least 6 feet from others, he continued.
“We have not adjusted our protocols on that from last year,” Olin said. “We intend to keep that at 14 days at this time.” He added the protocol may be adjusted in the future.
Olin said he understand the frustration that may cause for families when quarantines require adjusting work schedules for parents.
“Last year we did not see a lot of spread among a lot of kids who were close contacts,” Olin said. “But there was a different variable last year — everybody was wearing masks. I can’t tell you what percentage will be wearing masks this year. It’s why we like to keep things at that gold standard. We’re willing to make changes down the road. We’re still trying to balance safety with maximizing student learning.”
Mt. Vernon will not only permit the shorter quarantine options, but offer the COVID-19 testing needed to achieve them. The district offered rapid testing with the consent and presence of parents last year, and will continue to do so this year. Mt. Vernon also hopes to add the more reliable test that requires processing at a laboratory. Tests are offered to students and staff not only determined to be close contacts from exposures at school, but students and staff determined to be close contacts from exposures outside of school as well.
“We want to use every tool we can to give parents every opportunity to have their child come back as quickly as possible,” Parker said.
Nursing staff will continue to be instrumental in school districts’ pandemic response.
Greenfield-Central has a certified nurse working as a health assistant overseeing its COVID-19 cases. Last year, she and the school corporation’s nurse called all families of students who tested positive to talk about isolation periods and symptoms to look out for. They also spoke with close contacts about quarantine expectations.
Philhower said Eastern Hancock’s nurse and its two building principals play primary roles in the district’s response to COVID-19 cases. He added the district’s smaller size means fewer people for responding to COVID-19, but that can also be advantageous as well.
“That will allow us to keep close tabs on those types of things,” he said. “We did this all of last year, so we’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to pull it all off again if we have to.”
Anderson said Southern Hancock’s student management system makes keeping track of COVID-19 cases easy.
“We can designate students who are COVID-19 positive or quarantined with a particular attendance status, which lets all of our teachers know when that student should be absent and what their return date is,” he said. “In the event that student shows up at school, we can work quickly to get them back into quarantine.”
Mt. Vernon uses a confidential spreadsheet to track those who have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as close contacts, and their return dates.
“They have a really good process to track this,” Parker said.
‘The 11th hour’
The state issued the guidance about contact tracing in early July, which Southern Hancock leaders felt didn’t give much time to implement ahead of its first day of classes on Aug. 3.
“The governor’s order of saying he was going to let school boards make this decision as to what is best for their own community versus the health department’s requirement at the 11th hour is frustrating,” Anderson said.
He noted the situation is frustrating for administrators as well as parents.
“This is all about kids missing school, and I can tell you very few of our close contact students got sick last year,” Anderson said.
Had the district known about the decision by the health department sooner, Anderson said that would have at least given parents some time to make decisions about getting their student vaccinated.
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”By the numbers” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
COVID-19 data as of early Tuesday, Aug. 3
- 128 new tests administered (July 29-Aug. 2)
- 18 new cases (Aug. 2)
- 8.1% seven-day (July 21-27) positivity rate all tests, 8.7% cumulative rate
- 0 new deaths
- 119,684 total tests administered
- 46,807 total individuals tested
- 8,855 total cases
- 11.5% seven-day (July 21-27) positivity rate unique individuals, 18.9% cumulative rate
- 150 total deaths
- 42,869 age 12+ fully vaccinated (64.5% of that population)
- 18,093 new tests administered (April 17, 2020-Aug. 2, 2021), 4,537 new individuals tested
- 1,610 new cases (July 30-Aug. 2)
- 7.8% seven-day (July 21-27) positivity rate all tests, 8.4% cumulative rate
- 13 new deaths (July 28-Aug. 1)
- 11,287,896 total tests administered
- 3,683,001 total individuals tested
- 775,686 total cases
- 15.5% seven-day (July 21-27) positivity rate unique individuals, 21.1% cumulative rate
- 13,596 total deaths
- 429 total probable deaths
- 54.2% ICU beds in use – non-COVID
- 10.5% ICU beds in use – COVID
- 35.3% ICU beds available
- 17.7% ventilators in use – non-COVID
- 3.3% ventilators in use – COVID
- 79% ventilators available
- Hospital census: 985 total COVID-19 patients (703 confirmed, 282 under investigation)
- Delta variant: 87.7% of samples this month
- Not variant of concern: 6.6% of samples this month
- Alpha variant: 3.2% of samples this month
- Gamma variant: 2.5% of samples this month
- Beta variant: 0% of samples this month
- Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children: 103 total confirmed cases
- 2.9 million age 12+ fully vaccinated (50% of that population)
- 3,710 breakthrough cases (0.126% of fully vaccinated individuals)
- 161 breakthrough hospitalizations (0.005% of fully vaccinated individuals)
- 56 breakthrough deaths (0.002% of fully vaccinated individuals)