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Health, Science & Environment

Schools Struggle To Keep Up With Contact Tracing

A photo of an empty classroom.
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Schools are facing many challenges collecting accurate and up to date information on coronavirus case counts.

Earlier this week, Heather Milner’s kids were getting ready to go to school when she noticed an email. It said her son had been exposed to another student who had tested positive for COVID-19. But the exposure had happened more than a week before.

Neither the health department nor schools share the names of people who expose others to the disease. But Milner said she was able to guess who it was and when it happened through word of mouth.

“I think it’s crazy it came so late in the game,” she said. “I received zero notice, not even a phone call from the school.”

Luckily, Milner’s son had not shown any symptoms and had been off school for a week for fall break, but the email said he would still need to quarantine for two more days before he could return.

The delay is one of many challenges students, parents and schools have faced as districts across the state try to remain open as COVID-19 cases rise. Several have had outbreaks and been forced to close. And as the virus has become a contentious political issue for some, rumors are surfacing that schools are trying to downplay case counts.

Jessica Antezano, an environmental health scientist and school liaison with Salt Lake County Health Department, said in her experience schools have done a good job reporting cases as soon as they know about them. But there are a lot of challenges in collecting accurate and up to date information.

When cases happen outside of a school, local health departments are in charge of contacting people to let them know what they need to do and what resources are available. They try to find out, for example, how many people someone lives with, if there's anyone who goes to school or daycare or works outside the home.

But finding out where someone works or goes to school can only happen through contact tracing, which Antezano said can be a tricky process. Contact tracers will leave voicemails, send texts, even physical letters sometimes but they can have inaccurate numbers or addresses or people simply won’t respond.

“A lot of times people might think we're a telemarketer or something and don't answer the phone,” Antezano said. “They don't recognize the number. They don't respond to the text. And then it just makes it more difficult.”

That means when a student tests positive, schools are usually the first to find out and end up doing a lot of the contact tracing themselves.

Antezano said staff will go back to classrooms and measure six feet around every desk of students who’ve tested positive, then contact those who were around them to let them know they need to quarantine.

She said the process is easier for younger students who are in one class all day, but becomes much more complicated when students are in multiple classes a day and interacting with others in the hallway and during break periods.

Schools also often don’t get information themselves until much later. Antezano said a student could show symptoms, for example, but they might wait a few days to get tested. Then the test results could take a while to return, and by the time they know and inform their school, a week or more could have passed.

On top of that, parents are sometimes hesitant to even get their kids tested, let alone share a positive result.

“Some people have this stigma, like they don't want anyone to know that they have COVID,” Antezano said, adding that it happens in particular with sports teams and parents not wanting to report a positive test because it could mean the team might not be able to play.

Milner said her kids aren’t on any school teams but is well aware of the pressure parents face to not get their kids tested. If other parents find out a student contracted the virus and was responsible for cancelling a game, she said they’ll get blackballed.

“It's kind of a nightmare,” Milner said. “The schools have become a little scary with all the parents trying to convince everyone ‘don't get tested so we don't get shut down.’”

She said she understands it’s a difficult situation and doesn’t necessarily blame the school for the late notice she received. But she still can’t help but feel frustrated with the whole situation.

“All I can do is tell [my kids] how to conduct themselves or limit their risk,” she said. “But we can't do anything about the other people in that building.”

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