Contact tracing in local schools: How does it work? How long does it take?

Keeping Schools Safe

(WJHL) – How does contract tracing work? It’s a question that many parents and students may be asking after their child was sent home from school to quarantine after potential exposure.

As the spread of the Coronavirus remains a growing threat, local school officials are doing their best to contain the spread and keep their staff and student body as safe as possible, one of the main measures being contact tracing.

Johnson City Schools officials have been updating their COVID-19 dashboard multiple times a week, including even further details than required by the state, according to a district spokesperson, Collin Brooks.

As of 3 p.m. Friday, the dashboard showed 551 students in quarantine, 23 in isolation, and 134 pending. The isolated students are the ones who physically tested positive for COVID-19. It’s important to note that not all of those cases are school-related but could have also been contracted outside of school.

Currently, Johnson City schools students are 100% in-person learning with the exception of Liberty Bell Middle school students who are temporarily learning from home and those students who opted for online school at the start of the academic year.

Greg Wallace, the Supervisor of School Safety and Mental Health for Johnson City schools, said contact tracing is a complicated process, but a necessary one in terms of keeping their staff and student body safe.

“It’s a big job, The folks that are doing it directly are working evenings and they’re working weekends to make sure that we get that information as quickly as we can to our families,” said Wallace.

He said once notified, they look at everyone who could have been impacted by that positive case and it’s an extensive process. “We’re going to look at seating charts, who are the students who are beside that particular student, we look at bus situations, we look at activities athletic activities, all of those things. We’ve even looked at film,” said Wallace.

He spoke of “direct contacts” which would be anyone within 6-feet of that positive individual for 15 minutes or more, these are the cases who would be sent home as a result of contact tracing. For “contacts of contacts”, also known as people who came into contact with those direct contacts but not the person who physically tested positive, they would not be sent home.

Wallace told News Channel 11’s Kelly Grosfield that for the most part, they have been successful in notifying parents and students on the same day they learn of that positive case.

However, in Washington County schools, one parent said they were notified 10 days after his son has potentially been exposed. Gideon Erwin is a sophomore at Davy Crockett high school who runs on the Cross-Country team.

He was supposed to run in their regional competition but was notified that day he was exposed 10 days prior, pulling him from the race and ruining his chances at qualifying for states.

While not being able to compete is disappointing in itself, Gideon said this late notification opened his eyes to more concerns about the spreading of the virus.

“If I were to have COVID and I got someone else sick and I didn’t know, then that’s a problem in itself,” said Erwin. His father expressed similar concerns, stating he’s a nurse and understands it can be a complicated process, but a notification that far after initial exposure draws questions about how the process is being done.

“If we’re going to do contact tracing so we don’t spread COVID around, then 10 days out after an exposure doesn’t seem like that’s going to be an effective way to stop the spread of COVID,” said Gideon’s father, Dustin Erwin.

Since COVID-19 has an incubation period of 2-14 days, these direct contacts, no matter how soon after, must go into quarantine as a precaution.

“Theoretically, you can test positive or you can become positive at any point in that 14-day period and we’ve actually had cases where somebody would test negative and think they’re okay and then 3 days later they start developing symptoms,” said Wallace.

News Channel 11 spoke with Washington County schools regarding their contact tracing process and it was very similar to the way Johnson City schools does it with the exception that several day delays on the notification are not unusual.

Washington County school officials said a number of factors play into a delay in notification. Primarily, they rely on a parent or health department notification of a positive case.

“Sometimes it’s several days out. Some people get tested in other counties and so that also will increase the time frame that we’re notified,” said Kelly Wagner, Washington County schools Director of Coordinated School Health.

Wagner said once they’re notified of a positive case, they go back two days before the last day the infected student was on campus, which can also be difficult among high school students because of the number of class changes throughout the day.

While it’s not entirely a foolproof system, Wagner does believe contact tracing is effective in preventing the spread of Coronavirus. “We understand the frustration and we also understand the inconvenience of it but our main goal is the health and safety of our students so we’re going to follow that and do everything we can to keep everyone safe,” she said.

All school districts are closely following the recommendations of the health department and are taking this virus very seriously. Johnson City school officials said they have had a great line of communication with parents in terms of reporting positive tests.

If your child tests positive for COVID, regardless of what school district they belong to, you are advised to notify their school as soon as possible.

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