As fall breaks begin for Middle Tennessee schoolchildren, school administrators have settled into systems for handling the coronavirus pandemic that by and large seem to be working but vary slightly.
Trousdale County Schools is taking a slightly different approach to assessing risk and requiring quarantines. According to Director Clint Satterfield, his district’s COVID protocols follow a specific algorithm handed out by the Tennessee Department of Health.
Under the TDOH guidance, if a student or teacher has no exposure to COVID-19 with one low-risk symptom, they may return to school 24 hours after showing an improvement.
Exposure is defined as being within six feet of a positive COVID case for 10 minutes or longer. Low-risk symptoms are defined as congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, headache or muscle aches. High-risk symptoms include new cough, difficulty breathing, loss of taste or smell or a fever higher than 100.4 degrees.
“When they’re assessing, they’re looking for high-risk or low-risk,” added Kathy Atwood, coordinated school health supervisor for Trousdale County.
Sumner County Schools are fully open and it has avoided a serious outbreak among students and staff.
Jeremy Johnson, Sumner County School’s supervisor of board and community relations, said the district’s step-by-step plan has worked.
“We think that opening in hybrid was more successful,” he said. “It allowed us to give teachers a routine and get one-on-one time with students. The original reason we opened in a hybrid was to keep the numbers down.”
That has been working, although the numbers trended up
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last week, with the district reporting 58 new student and 10 new staff cases — up from 22 and less than five the week before.
When students or staff test positive, Sumner County Schools has a procedure, similar to other districts, designed to limit spread while keeping as many students in school as possible.
In all districts, contact tracing is critical. Johnson said Sumner used state health department and federal guidelines to develop its protocol. Those who come into close contact, which is defined as within 6 feet for 15 minutes are quarantined for 14 days. Some school districts say within 6 feet for 10 minutes, such as Trousdale and Macon county schools.
Wilson County Schools has a elaborate contact tracing protocol, according to Health Services Supervisor Chuck Whitlock.
“We notify the parents of everybody that’s in a group that kid is attached to,” he said. “So if that kid rides a bus, goes to Kids Club and has four classes, we’ll send it to everybody in those groups.”
Students and staff are not identified by name in those messages, and the recipients are encouraged to monitor their children for symptoms and seek medical treatment if they occur.
“Then they start really doing investigation to see who can be identified as a close contact,” Whitlock said. “The Tennessee Department of Health and the CDC set the parameters — within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more.”
Administrators and nurses at each school are tasked with figuring out who those people are and have several tools at their disposal.
“They’ll pull seating charts, they pull school video, bus video,” Whitlock said. “They do interviews with teachers, all kinds of stuff, Traditionally, it’ll take about 4 hours or more depending on if you’re in the high school and you’ve got eight classes, because it takes longer the more classes you have.”
Schools then put together a list of people who were in close contact for the health department before calling each of them to let them know.
“They will need to quarantine at home for 14 days from the last date of contact,” Whitlock said. “So they’ll give them the date … those go out, and the original person that’s tested positive, they are to isolate for at least 10 days from the onset of symptoms or the test date.”
If a student or staff member lives with a person who tests positive, they will undergo a 10-day isolation followed by a 14-day quarantine.
“For example, I’ve got a 17-year-old son,” Whitlock said. “If I tested positive, he’d have to stay home and isolate with me for 10 days, and when I went back to work he’d still have to quarantine for another 14 days because in theory, he can catch it from me on day 10 and it takes a 14-day quarantine to really know that you didn’t catch it.”
Administrators in general have been pleased with students and staff response to the guidelines, but vigilance is needed.
“I’m very pleasantly surprised (at the low numbers of positive COVID cases to this point),” said Tony Boles, director of Macon County Schools. “All of that has been attributed to our COVID plans for each school. Teachers knew what to do. Nurses knew what to do. Aids and staff knew what to do. They knew what to do when school started, and they’ve stuck to it. The (mandatory) wearing of a mask on buses has helped as well. The decisions that were made from the board all the way down to each individual school have contributed to the low numbers we’ve had so far.”
Sumner’s Johnson echoed that.
“One of the things we’ve been surprised about is how serious all of our students take it,” he said. “Our challenge with parents is to do the things that help keep safety but not change things so much so that they can’t be kids. It’s a balance. It’s allowing safety but having things as close to normal as possible.”
Preventing shutdowns, whether at the class or school level is the goal.
“Depending on the school and the school structure, we may be able to roll a segment of the school over to remote for two weeks,” said Wilson County’s Whitlock. “Or we may have to roll the entire school to remote for two weeks. If that’s the case, then our teachers can continue teaching but they would teach in a virtual environment for those two weeks to allow for an opportunity for the virus to be suppressed.”
That was the case Friday, when one of the district’s elementary school was closed because staffing was becoming difficult. Administrators decided to shut the school with this week being fall break in hopes that the wave would pass by the time school resumes.
“I don’t want people to get complacent and start relaxing,” said Macon’s Boles. “As a school system, we don’t need to relax either. We need to keep hammering away.”
Staff from the Vidette’s Middle Tennessee sister publications reported this story, including Macon County Times’ Craig Harris and the Lebanon Democrat’s Ethan Steinquest.
Staff from the Leader’s Middle Tennessee sister publications reported this story, including Macon County Times’ Craig Harris, the Hartsville Vidette’s Chris Gregory and the Lebanon Democrat’s Ethan Steinquest.