COVID-19 contact tracing protocols could lead to some Lawrence students returning to remote learning for weeks

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

As the Lawrence school district completes its weekslong transition to hybrid learning on Monday, parents may be wary that their children could be sent back to remote learning if community spread of the coronavirus continues to increase.

But it’s also possible, and maybe even more likely, that pockets of virus cases within classrooms and school buildings will lead to some students learning remotely for weeks.

That has already been the case for students at other Douglas County school districts, as students have been asked to quarantine after contracting the virus or for coming in close contact with a student who contracted the virus.

Some students, specifically siblings of students who contract the virus, may even need to spend longer periods of time in quarantine than the standard two weeks. Sonja Gaumer, nurse facilitator for the Lawrence school district, told the Journal-World this past week that state guidelines could require a “household contact” of the virus to stay in isolation for more than three weeks.

“They have to follow a different type of quarantine,” Gaumer said of household contacts. “You could be looking at 24 days (of quarantine).”

Additionally, teachers who contract the virus or are in close contact with someone who contracts the virus may also be forced to quarantine for weeks, which could then lead to their students needing to return to remote learning.

To help limit the spread of the virus, school districts are following protocols established by the county’s Unified Command, a coalition of school district leaders, health department officials and others that was put together to help school districts respond to the ongoing pandemic. The protocols set out contact tracing and quarantine guidelines for those affected by cases of the virus.

Along with the protocols, the Lawrence school district has taken measures to try to limit the chances of needing to go back to remote learning. But it’s unclear whether it has made any decisions on winter sports, which may pose greater risks of virus spread because they are played indoors.

Contact tracing protocols

When a case of the coronavirus arises in a school building, the first thing the school district must figure out is who came in close contact with the individual.

Gaumer said the school district would speak to the family of the student to see if they were symptomatic and begin the contact tracing process there.

The district then steps back 48 hours prior to when symptoms began. Any student, teacher or staff member in the district who was deemed to be within 6 feet for 10 minutes or longer would be required to quarantine for 14 days.

If the student or teacher who contracted the virus did not experience any symptoms, Gaumer said, the contact tracing begins 48 hours prior to when the individual tested positive for the virus.

Along with tracing those around an individual with the virus, the district must also do the same for their family members who live in the same household and attend or work at Lawrence school buildings. Gaumer said family members of an individual with the virus were considered “household contacts,” and could also be contagious. Family members could then be subjected to an even longer period of quarantine.

Under the Kansas Department of Health and Environment guidelines, household contacts must quarantine along with their family member who contracted the virus for 10 days. Then they must quarantine for an additional 14 days, adding up to a total of 24 days in quarantine whether they contracted the virus or not, Gaumer said.

Some parents may be upset if their children are required to quarantine for weeks, even if they don’t contract the virus. At least one parent in Eudora told the Journal-World a child was forced to quarantine, even though the child tested negative for the virus.

But the school district protocols show students cannot “test out” of quarantine.

George Diepenbrock, spokesman for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said that’s because the incubation period of the virus could take two to 14 days after exposure.

“If a contact receives a negative result during this time, it could indicate a true negative or it could indicate that the person has not developed a sufficient viral load to be detected on a test, giving a false negative,” Diepenbrock said in an email.

To be safe, the protocols, which are based on guidelines from KDHE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, require close contacts to quarantine for 14 days regardless of whether they contract the virus or not.

While other school districts in Douglas County — which began hybrid learning earlier than Lawrence — have seen these protocols send their students back to remote learning, it’s unclear how many students have been affected this fall. Officials for the health department did not answer the Journal-World’s request for the number.

Substitute teachers

Students are not the only ones who may need to quarantine after contact tracing. Teachers have been caught in the fray as well.

In Baldwin City, losing teachers to a two-week quarantine almost led the school district to fall back to fully remote learning, despite the health department at the time recommending the use of hybrid models.

Baldwin City Superintendent Paul Dorathy told the Journal-World in September that a number of teachers were quarantining and the school district was on the brink of remote learning because it had only four substitutes to fill their roles during that time.

“We are covering for now, but if we lose very many more staff members we may have to shutdown a class, or a school or possibly the district,” the district said in its message to parents at the time.

But the Lawrence school district has taken steps to avoid such a scenario. Along with its stable of about 175 active substitute teachers, the district also hired a substitute teacher for each of its school buildings to cover assignments as needed, school district spokeswoman Julie Boyle told the Journal-World. She also noted that school buildings have identified building staff who could fill in for their colleagues when needed.

Additionally, the Lawrence district is prepared to have quarantining faculty members teach from home while their students are in their classroom as usual, which is similar to how Baldwin City got through its shortage.

However, the district is prepared to shut down a classroom or school buildings if needed, which would require students and teachers to return to fully remote learning.

“Given the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, there could be circumstances that cause a class, a group of classes, or a school to shift from hybrid to remote learning or to close temporarily,” Boyle said in an email. “We are prepared to respond to those safety needs if they arise.”

Athletics

As the calendar gets later into the year, school districts will soon begin offering winter sports, which include basketball and wrestling.

Both sports are indoors, which could mean a greater threat of spreading COVID-19. Under the health department’s guidance, both sports are considered “high risk,” which means they involve close and sustained contact between participants.

While local school districts allowed other high risk sports to continue in the fall — particularly football and soccer, despite the health department’s guidance calling for the prohibition of those competitions for all but one week so far this fall — it’s unclear if the winter sports will go on.

Lawrence students participating in sports were already subjected to the district’s contact tracing and quarantine protocols in October after a Free State High School football game on Oct. 2, the Journal-World has reported. Members of the Free State team were ordered to quarantine after coming into close contact with someone who had contracted the virus. Boyle later told the Journal-World none of the players tested positive for the virus, but 80 players, managers and coaches were subjected to quarantine.

When asked if the Lawrence school district had decided on whether to offer winter sports this school year, Boyle did not directly answer the question. She said that Superintendent Anthony Lewis was expected to discuss the topic during the Lawrence school board’s meeting on Monday.

“Dr. Lewis plans to discuss these topics with the district’s COVID-19 Advisory Committee and share the administration’s decision during his Superintendent’s Report at Monday’s school board meeting,” Boyle said in an email to the Journal-World.


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