Early on Sept. 10, Catholic High School in Little Rock had had no positive COVID-19 cases from students since the start of the school year. By the afternoon, they got the call from a parent whose child had been in quarantine and had in fact tested positive.
“As soon as I hung up with the parent of the positive student, I picked up the phone,” said Rebecca McWilliams, CHS secretary and the school’s designated point of contact.
Parents of students the child had been around at work -- everyone was distanced appropriately at school -- were called. McWilliams filled out paperwork to submit to the diocesan Catholic Schools Office, called the school hotline through the Arkansas Department of Health to double check the amount of time a student and close contacts must quarantine -- 14 days from exposure -- and a schoolwide email was sent to faculty, staff and parents. In total, from this situation and others cases that may have been exposed to by family or friends, eight students are quarantined.
While they had a trial run of the process after some football players tested positive during the summer after a practice on campus, it was the first time to go through it during the official school year.
“It was pretty seamless; we understood the process,” McWilliams said. “It was probably about an hour and a half total,” from when they received word the student was positive to the end of the notification process.
In addition to implementing and navigating all the safety protocols, schools must have plans in place for reporting positive COVID cases of students, faculty and staff.
Catholic schools superintendent Theresa Hall said the Arkansas Department of Education has set up a school hotline through the Arkansas Department of Health, which allows schools to call and ask COVID-19 questions and report cases. A form has also been created in which schools submit to the Catholic Schools Office and is then sent to ADH. Parents must inform a school if someone in the household has tested positive and if someone in the home is a close contact of a positive COVID case.
“They’ve created a form that all schools use to report any positive cases in the school. With that they also ask you to list probably close contacts, parents’ names/contacts,” Hall said. Once a form is submitted, “Then we call the hotline. They don't want 26 of the schools calling (for reporting). Each district has one school contact assigned,” in this case, the diocesan schools office.
“We give them the information about what county they are in, when’s the last time they’ve been in contact with the school, did they have symptoms,” she added.
While the reporting procedure to the diocese and subsequently the health department is structured, each school has their own internal plan when a parent calls.
Nancy Handloser, principal at Our Lady of the Holy Souls School in Little Rock, said school nurse Rachael Mayhew is the point of contact.
“What we do at that point with any questions or concerns is call the hotline. If it’s a positive case, of course, then we call the diocese. We also do a possible close contact search if we get one,” she said. “... We also check with our teachers, even our speciality teachers going in and out of those rooms. If they feel like they’ve had 15 minutes of close contact” without a mask that qualifies as exposure, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
With strict distancing and mask wearing, extra cleaning measures and teachers switching classrooms while students stay put, the school has worked to minimize cross contamination. Since the school year began, one student tested positive and a teacher did quarantine. A facilitator was hired to watch the classroom, while the teacher taught virtually.
“We’ve had a lot of help from some of our parents that are doctors. We want to reduce the exposure to others, that’s why we’re so tight on the kids traveling” within the school, Handloser said. “We can control so much of it in the building, and we don't want to expose them to more people than they need to be.”
St. Joseph School in Fayetteville has yet to have a positive case during the school year, as of press time. Principal Jason Pohlmeier is the point of contact, but an internal team of people, including a part-time school nurse, answer calls regarding possible exposure.
“Together we keep track of those within our systems here” with any students that are sick, even if it’s not COVID, following up with the families, he said.
Like at Catholic High School, an athlete tested positive after attending a summer practice. Six-foot distances were followed by fellow athletes and even double-checked via security camera footage. Those strict procedures were key, Pohlmeier said.
“You can see the domino effect of how things would move through a building and people,” he said.
The toughest hurdle is not reporting, but keeping track of changing symptom criteria. If a student comes to a nurse’s office, it could be COVID-19 or something as simple as allergies.
“We have been kind of scouring through the documentation and frameworks out there with the CDC, but it’s hard to tell and confusing,” Pohlemier said. “We’ll find one screening criteria from one organization, authority that contradicts another authority’s criteria on the topic.”
The school has kept communication going with a taskforce from the summer, particularly with those in the medical community, he said.
About 20 to 25 students have been voluntarily tested for COVID-19 out of the 340 students that did not meet the criteria for testing, but out of an abundance of caution from the parents, Pohlmeier said.
“When we put out our plan with how we were going to approach going back to school the main things we made the priorities were mask wearing, distancing as much as possible and cohorting, keeping the same groups together,” he said, while continually reevaluating, just like other schools. “... We’re doing our best.”
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