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As COVID-19 cases spike in younger populations, health departments turn to schools for help

Brett Dahlberg

Chris Hodges, the principal of Gaylord High School, never thought he’d be doing contact tracing.

“I definitely thought, you know, ‘Why -- why am I doing this?’” he said with a laugh. “That’s not what I went to school for.”

Nonetheless, on a Tuesday in April, after the school day was over, he found himself walking the almost-empty halls with a laptop and a tape measure.

In what has become a regular part of his school day, Hodges has heard from the Health Department of Northwest Michigan that a student has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and was in school on days she might have been contagious.

Lisa Peacock, the health officer for the department, said that without the school district’s help, it would be “literally impossible” to keep up with contact tracing.

The school-age population has accounted for a growing share of recent coronavirus cases across Northern Michigan, and Peacock said quickly identifying people exposed to those cases and telling them how to quarantine is crucial to protecting communities and containing further spread.

When Hodges first started helping the health department with contact tracing, he found himself calling teachers on weekends, holidays, and late in the day after they’d gone home, asking them where a particular student sat and struggling to orient himself in the classroom as they described the student’s position over the phone.

It happened so often that he’s now requiring teachers to keep an up-to-date seating chart in a bright yellow folder on top of their desk so he can find it easily.

But in this case, the teacher, Hannah Romel, was still at school. The student Hodges was tracing was in her yearbook class, which has different seating arrangements every day. She handed Hodges the three charts, and he got to work.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WCMU News
Hannah Romel, a teacher at Gaylord High School, sits at her desk behind the cleaning supplies she uses to sanitize surfaces between classes.

In each place Romel had marked the student, Hodges extended his tape measure to the surrounding desks.

Teachers have spaced their desks out as much as they can, he said, but sometimes, they can’t quite get to the six-foot distance required to avoid counting as close contact.

(The federal Centers for Disease Control updated its guidance last month to allow for three-foot distancing between desks, but only in communities transmission is low. In Gaylord Community Schools, Superintendent Brian Pearson said, six-foot separation is the standard.)

In this class, Hodges found two students sat just shy of six feet away from the student who tested positive.

He opened his laptop and started typing into a spreadsheet their names and the dates that they were potentially exposed to the virus.

Those students will need to quarantine for two weeks from the date of their last exposure.

Romel said with COVID-19 cases taking off recently in Northern Michigan, especially in school-age populations, it’s not at all unusual to have someone in her class test positive.

Pearson said he was hard-pressed to remember a recent day when a student or staff member in his district hadn’t tested positive for the virus.

Still, Romel said, she’s not gotten used to hearing the news that a student is sick.

“I worry about the kid,” she said. “I hope that it’s a mild case, and they get to just be okay and get back to school after their quarantine period and come back and be learning with us again.”

Some students have already had to quarantine three or four times, said Hodges.

“You really start to feel for them,” he said. “A big takeaway for me is, kids really want to be in school. Maybe they didn’t realize it before they didn’t have the choice, but they really want to be here.”

After a quick chat with Romel about whether the class did any group work on the days in question (they didn’t, which Hodges said is a relief, because it complicates his process), he headed off to the next classroom.

'We don't have the time to waste'

Hodges said as he does his tracing, he doesn’t just follow the student’s schedule for the day – he plans his route for efficiency. 

“I mentally map out the path I’m going to take through the building so I’m not wasting time retracing my steps and going back and forth,” he said. “We don’t have the time to waste.”

He doesn’t need to visit the cafeteria or trace the hallways, he said, because students eat lunch in classrooms and have staggered passing times and one-way halls.

When he got to the next room on his agenda – a math class – the door was locked.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WCMU News
Gaylord High School Principal Chris Hodges orients himself to a teacher's seating chart as he prepares to measure the distance between desks. A student in this class tested positive for the novel coronavirus earlier in the day, Hodges says.

But in addition to his laptop and tape measure, Hodges was armed with a set of keys. He let himself in, found the seating chart in the yellow folder on the teacher’s desk, and got to work measuring.

Three more students here sat within six feet of their classmate who tested positive.

“They will need to quarantine,” he said, ending his sentence with a heavy sigh.

He added those students to his spreadsheet and headed to the next room, where he found three more who needed to quarantine.

In all, 14 students will be quarantined as a result of exposure to this coronavirus case. Hodges said that’s higher than the usual average of seven or eight per positive test.

He’ll be calling the families of each of those 14 students to tell them that their child will be staying home from school.

Still, it’s a far cry from the number of phone calls the school had to make one day last month when 15 students tested positive, and each of them had several close contacts.

On days like that, Hodges said, he enlists the help of other school administrators. As he adds students to the spreadsheet, his assistant principals start calling families.

Hodges said they need to work quickly, both because if they don’t complete their contact tracing that day, they can’t have school the next day, and because the impact of their work in the school extends to the community beyond.

“We want to make those phone calls as soon as we can,” said Hodges, “so that those students aren’t at work, aren’t at church, aren’t going to other people’s houses. We want to prevent the spread of COVID not only inside our walls, but in our community.”

Still, school administrators don’t run the entirety of the contact tracing process for students or staff, said Peacock, the health officer for the Northwest Michigan and the Benzie-Leelanau health departments.

Hodges and other local principals share the information they find with their local health departments.

Then, said Peacock, her staff also get in touch with the families Hodges identifies to talk them through the details.

“People always have questions,” she said. “They have questions about, ‘What does this mean? What does it mean that I’m quarantined for 14 days?’ We recognize that.”

And in some cases, the health department needs more information than Hodges can give. They might have to do more detailed investigation of where students were when they were contagious and how they got sick.

Other nearby health departments have similar relationships with their local schools.

In the LMAS District Health Department, which covers four counties just north of the Mackinac Bridge, it’s not just teachers who keep seating charts to track close contact between students, said spokesperson Kerry Ott. Students have assigned seats for lunch and on buses, too, to aid the department’s contact tracing.

Kelly Conley, a health director with the Central Michigan District Health Department, covering 10 counties in the middle of the state, also described a symbiotic relationship with local schools.

“The work that the schools are doing is very important so that we do not overlook any possible exposure or risk of spreading COVID-19,” she said.

Nationally, this kind of relationship between schools and health departments is not exactly typical, but it’s also not entirely out of the ordinary, said Adriane Casalotti, the government and public affairs chief at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Public health funding has declined for the last few decades, she said, forcing local health departments to cut staff who could have boosted their contact tracing capacity.

Still, if schools and health departments can work together, it’s a big help for communities, she said.

Hodges said he’s glad to be part of that partnership. Making phone calls to families informing them their child will need to stay home from school for up to two weeks is not an enjoyable part of the day, for him or the families, but he said he’s gratified to have a part in mitigating the extent of the pandemic.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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