Overwhelmed by what it described as the “unrestrained spread” of COVID-19 across the state, the Barren River District Health Department announced Tuesday that it will no longer conduct contact tracing in its eight-county region – meaning local school districts will be picking up the slack.
“It just shows again that more is being put on the school system to basically fill the role, or part of the role, of the state public health system,” said Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields, describing a pattern of unfunded state mandates placed on local school districts, this time in the middle of a pandemic.
At Warren County Schools and the Bowling Green Independent School District, employees have already been conducting contact tracing internally. Even after Gov. Andy Beshear ordered schools across the state to pivot to virtual learning starting Monday, they must continue to report any new virus cases.
Fields said the big change is that his district will now notify families about how to quarantine and then run through a checklist with individuals before they can be cleared and allowed to return to school. Additionally, his district has reassigned a staff member to assist the district’s school nurses in the effort.
WCPS Superintendent Rob Clayton said his district is also working to manage the change.
“We were already conducting contact tracing internally as a secondary measure because it’s a safety concern. Contact tracing is a critical process, and we cannot allow any mistakes to be made,” Clayton said. “Fortunately for our students and families, our staff have become experts in finding a way to minimize the impact of unfunded mandates each year.”
Local schools in both districts will continue to provide vital services to families during the closure.
At WCPS, Clayton told the Daily News that the district will permit staff who can perform their duties virtually to do so until at least Dec. 4, after which the district will reassess. At BGISD, “Employees will report to schools to work from their classrooms and offices. Healthy at School guidance remains in effect including temperature checks upon entry, masks required, and social distancing mandatory. School offices and family resource and youth services centers will be available by phone or by email. Finally, the district’s transportation staff will be assigned to school sites to assist with needs as determined by school principals,” according to the district’s website.
WCPS will continue to distribute food, with meals available for pick up at all school locations on Mondays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
“Every child will be given three breakfasts and three lunches on each of those days. Children do not need to be present during the pick up of these items,” Clayton wrote in a district message Thursday. “Additionally, all schools will offer delivery routes for food through our Transportation Department. That information will be shared directly from your building leader. Please note that for the week of Thanksgiving Break, meals will be provided Tuesday, Nov. 24.”
Clayton added that district schools will continue to offer free Wi-Fi hotspots in their parking lots.
“Several community churches and businesses are also partnering with us to provide supplemental internet access. You may reach out to your child’s teacher for a more comprehensive list of these additional locations,” Clayton wrote. In addition, students receiving special education support services will be contacted directly to discuss their educational plans and how the district can best support them, Clayton wrote.
For BGISD students, meals will also be available at all schools and the Bowling Green Learning Center at 503 Old Morgantown Road on Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Weekly meals will be available at all schools and the Bowling Green Learning Center on Dec. 4, Dec. 11 and Dec. 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The district announced on its website Friday that health and counseling services will also continue to be offered via telehealth. Curbside testing for flu, strep throat and COVID-19 will be available at Bowling Green High School by appointment by calling 270-418-2714. According to the district, students or employees needing to speak with a student and family counselor may schedule a telehealth appointment with either Tanner Steelman or Amy Carter, both social workers, by calling 270-599-1610.
BGISD recently purchased wireless access points to install on school buildings for outside access to the district’s wireless network. The installation will begin on Monday, Nov. 30, the district said. The district will notify families after the project is complete with details on the location of each school’s access points.
Even with the transition to remote instruction, BGISD is asking all students and employees to report cases of COVID-19 and quarantines due to exposure to schools. Individuals should report case information to the district’s school health clinic at 270-418-2714. Callers should leave a voicemail if calling after hours or on weekends.
Fields said his district was notified about the contact tracing change Tuesday, but whether school districts will receive any additional funding for contact tracing remains an open question. Still, school systems will find a way to make it work, Fields said.
It would be nice, Fields said, “For our staff members who are working so hard to do this to just get a thank you from our state leadership.”
“Schools will embrace it because that’s what we do and we have to do it,” Fields said, admitting to some frustration at school districts being designated the new “quarantine police.”
During Gov. Andy Beshear’s news conference Tuesday, Franklin County Health Department Director Judy Mattingly said local public health departments have been “overwhelmed” by the rise of COVID-19 across the state.
“With this higher than ever number of positive COVID-19 cases, also comes a simply overwhelming number of contacts to these cases that may literally be hundreds upon hundreds of additional calls each day,” Mattingly said. “At this point, it is becoming impossible for our local health departments to call each and every one of these contacts in a timely fashion, which is necessary for contact tracing to be effective.”
As a result, she asked those in the public who test positive for the virus to notify their contacts themselves.
Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of an individual with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes and it can occur 48 hours before symptoms show in the individual or before a positive test result, whichever comes first. Beshear also noted that the exposure does not have to occur in one setting and can apply to multiple exposure events that add up to 15 minutes.
One key challenge that Fields’ district is continuing to grapple with is how it will make sure exposed students notify their school if they’ve come into contact with an infected individual outside of a school setting.
“We have no way of knowing that student has been notified,” that they should self-isolate and monitor for symptoms, Fields said.
“To our parents and our students, if you are told to quarantine – first of all, do it – follow that guidance,” Fields said. “Secondly, please inform us at the school level.”
“It can happen to anybody, and we just need to make sure that they communicate that with us so that we are not having students who should be in quarantine … potentially exposing a lot of people,” Fields said.