Contact tracing in schools can lead to dozens notified: ‘Classrooms are inherently high risk’

CBS47 News

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. (KGPE) – School districts across the Central Valley are seeing an increasing number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

With that, contact tracing can be difficult as the number of cases grows, especially in middle schools and high schools. Students attend multiple classes a day with different classmates.

“It’s not like an elementary environment where one student is around the same group of students all day long. Any of our students are around multiple groups of students all day long,” said Kristin Heimerdinger, a Buchanan High School teacher and a spokesperson for the Association of Clovis Educators (ACE).

Health experts say the risk of being a potential contact is higher.

“You can just imagine. If you have a child in middle school or high school who’s positive and they may not know it, and they’re going to six or seven different classrooms, they may be in an after school activity, the number of potential contacts that they have, it can be dozens, even more,” said Dr. John Zweifer, a medical consultant with the Fresno County Department of Public Health.

With the highly contagious delta variant, health departments and school districts are trying to keep as many students as possible in class.

The Clovis Unified COVID-19 dashboard, updated on Sunday, shows 217 staff and students have tested positive for COVID-19 in the month of August so far.

Fresno Unified’s COVID-19 dashboard shows 394 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in the month of August (but the data has not been updated since Thursday).

“Classrooms are inherently high risk. They’re indoors and they’re crowded,” Zweifler said.

Zweifler added that in some cases, entire classrooms have had to quarantine.

“Our rough rule of thumb is if you have two or more kids in a classroom who test positive and we don’t have an explanation for where those two cases came from so that we’re worried that there may be transmission going on in that classroom, we’re saying that classroom should be quarantined,” he said.

This is Heimerdinger’s third week in school at Buchanan High School.

“I don’t know a teacher anywhere who isn’t thrilled to be back in the classroom with a full class of students to interact with and to be able to teach live in persona all of them a the same time,” Heimerdinger said.

But the impact of the highly contagious delta variant has made its way into the classroom as well.

“We do have students who have tested COVID positive, we have students who have to quarantine and we have teachers who are in the same boat, so there are still disruptions to some students’ education,” Heimerdinger added.

The increase in cases has some parents concerned.

“I did actually speak with a parent yesterday who expressed concerns to me. Just for the safety of their student and that they were considering switching to one of our independent study formats,” Heimerdinger said.

Melissa Person is a Clovis Unified parent to a middle schooler and high schooler. She is less concerned about the cases in school but said navigating the rules and changes has been challenging.

“I’m thrilled that our kids are back in school and that they have the opportunity to participate in sports and extracurricular activities,” Person added.

Many students are not yet eligible to get the vaccine. But for those who are, per Fresno County’s latest data, only 39% of Fresno County’s 12 to 17-year-olds are vaccinated with at least one dose.

“It’s a hard time right now. We’re seeing our emergency rooms, our hospitals are just jam-packed right now. If we can get through these next couple of weeks, I think we’ll be in a lot better place,” Zweifler said.

To minimize the risk of exposure, Zweifler wants those who are eligible to get their vaccine. He also urged students to stay a home if a household member is showing symptoms.

“If there is a household member who has either tested positive or is symptomatic, all the household members should be staying home until that’s sorted out,” Zweifler said.

In a statement, Fresno Unified School District says staff members work quickly to notify those impacted when word of a positive case is received.

“Those notifications happen within 24 hours and are sent through a SchoolMessenger call, email or letter home. Those who are considered close contacts are contacted directly by school site leadership, health services, or our COVID-19 Action Team (CAT) with further instructions to safely quarantine.”

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