Knox County Schools will continue the work of tracing and notifying close contacts of COVID-19 cases even though the Knox County Health Department has decided to shift its resources away from the practice.
But the county and the schools stress that it all comes down to individual responsibility in stopping the disease. By now you know the drill: wash your hands, clean surfaces, wear a mask, social distance and stay home when you’re sick or told to quarantine.
It’s more important than ever because the pandemic is raging and because less information is being shared between agencies. The health department will no longer notify the district when students or employees were exposed to COVID-19 outside of the school, according to district spokeswoman Carly Harrington.
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For example, a parent of a student might test positive for COVID-19. Previously, the health department would tell the schools about the student being a close contact and that he or she should stay out of the classroom, but now it’s up to the parent to keep the child home.
The county health department announced Friday it will interview only people diagnosed with COVID-19 within six days of the health department being informed of the result. This shift is because the county is turning more of its efforts toward rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine. Now it’s the responsibility of the person with COVID-19 to alert close contacts.
The district’s 83 school nurses notify people when they have been exposed to a person who is COVID-19 positive.
Typically, it takes no more than 48 hours between the school system learning of a positive case and alerting all school-related close contacts about quarantine procedures, district health services supervisor Lisa Wagoner told Knox News. Harrington said Monday she does not expect that timeframe to change with KCHD’s new policy.
But there’s also a gap between a person getting a COVID-19 test and receiving the result. Students are expected to stay home during that time period, but the district relies on parents and guardians to abide by that rule.
Some cases can fall through the cracks because asymptomatic people still can spread the virus.
On top of that, the state no longer performs case monitoring, the practice of calling close contacts to see whether they develop symptoms, for Knox County.
Now it’s on families to notify their school if their student is showing symptoms. The school system follows up with probable cases to see whether they end up completing a COVID-19 test.
This month, the district welcomed around 45,000 students back to in-person learning after two weeks of winter break and one week of virtual learning. Some schools were already learning virtually prior to the district closure.
Quarantine is shorter
In early December, the district adopted new quarantine time periods after recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed.
That means students and staff who are a close contact can return to school buildings in as little as seven days from exposure depending on certain criteria .
The state’s change on case monitoring also means the district is sending a letter to students only at the beginning of their quarantine period rather than at the beginning and end of the period, Wagoner said. The letter has the listed dates when a student can return to class, and the schools track those dates as well.
Last semester, some students still tried to go to school. Wagoner said this didn’t happen often, but when it happened, students were isolated from others and a guardian is called to pick up the child.
Limiting spread also means knowing who has COVID-19. But Wagoner acknowledged some people do not want to get a COVID-19 test. There can be a ripple effect from a person not getting the test — that person can unknowingly expose others to the virus.
Wagoner said it’s possible people avoiding tests could lead to an underreporting of COVID-19 in schools, but the schools monitor for COVID-19 symptoms. Wagoner said sometimes students have to bring a doctor’s note to return to class.
“The parents and the staff have been really good at letting us know that they had a COVID test or their test was positive, so they’ve been really honest with that, straightforward,” Wagoner said.
While students had a two-week break, the pandemic did not go away. Wagoner said families alerted their student’s teacher or principal about if they were going to miss school because of COVID-19. From there, the teacher or principal forwards the information to the district’s health services department.
The school district reported 219 active COVID-19 cases Friday and 1,128 people in isolation or quarantine.
The schools take safety precautions, but the county saw a spike in cases after the Thanksgiving holiday and officials are expecting another spike in the coming weeks.
On students’ first day back this semester, the county set two COVID-19 records with the highest number of deaths and hospitalizations reported in a single day since the pandemic began.
The county’s ICU beds are nearing capacity as well, according to data on the Knox County Health Department website.