PORTLAND, Ore. — Many school districts in Oregon and Washington are providing in-person learning in some capacity. With the return to in-person learning, schools must have a process for what to do when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
School districts in Oregon will work directly with local public health departments in the event that a student or staff member tests positive for the coronavirus or are presumed to have it because of symptoms and if they’ve had contact with someone who has the virus. The state released a 44-page toolkit, which has guidelines to help districts determine what to do in many different scenarios. Many districts have similar protocols in place.
Jodi Peterson is the nurse coordinator, or head nurse, for Salem-Keizer Public Schools. The district just started hybrid learning this week for about 4,300 kindergarten through first grade students. She said there are multiple ways for the district to find out if a student has contracted COVID-19.
“You might know because the family told you, Peterson said. "You might know because you had illness in the building. Or you might know because the county called you."
Peterson said if there is a student who has tested positive for COVID-19, or has symptoms, they’ll first be removed from the classroom and put in a separate room with another staff member. Parents are called and the student would wait to get picked up.
“We look at close prolonged contacts or cohorts,” said Peterson. “Are they in athletics?”
Peterson said while the student is placed in a separate room, the rest of the cohort will continue operating as normal for the rest of the day while the COVID response team gathers more information about the student involved and their cohort.
She said the COVID response team would be working to notify parents whose children may have been exposed. It also gets in touch with the county’s public health department. By the end of the day, Peterson said a plan for the particular situation would be in place.
“Their [school districts’] responsibility is to report to us if they hear of a case,” said Beth Appert with the Multnomah County Health Department. She is in charge of working with schools in the event of an outbreak or positive COVID-19 test.
“We ask for a list of that cohort, then we then can keep track if any new cases arise from that cohort,” Appert said.
Carol Kinch, director of student services in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, said a typical classroom cohort is between 15-20 people.
“Could be as low as 10-15 and then you have the buses,” said Kinch.
Like other districts, she said it’s likely students in the entire cohort would have to quarantine for 10-14 days before being allowed back in person.
“It’s 10 days since their first symptom and 24 hours fever free without ibuprofen or fever-reducing medication and no more symptoms. Or they could get a negative COVID-19 test,” Kinch said.
In Salem-Keizer Public Schools, Peterson said it’s possible that some students would have to stay out of school for longer if a number of people in their household are exposed to COVID-19. Students affected would switch to distance learning and Kinch said the district would notify the larger school district community as well. However, information released won’t include specific details like the child’s name.
Both Kinch and Peterson said the process will be challenging. For instance, when it comes to contacting parents who need to pick up their kids, some parents may not have access to email. In those cases, district representatives will have to get creative to contact parents. Another difficult piece will be figuring out whether symptoms are coronavirus-related or not.
A spokesperson for Portland Public Schools (PPS) said there will be slightly different responses to different scenarios.
“School and classroom sizes are highly variable across Oregon, and therefore the response and protocols may vary and will require school leaders to make critical decisions in partnership with their local public health authorities,” said Karen Werstein, spokesperson for PPS.
Lisa Ferguson, who manages the entire communicable disease program for Multnomah County, said the health department has worked closely with schools for years to prevent the spread of other communicable disease like measles or the flu. She said the relationship school districts and the county health department built over the years is helpful in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
At Vancouver Public Schools (VPS), all close contacts, defined as anyone who was within six feet for 15 minutes or longer, cumulatively in a 24-hour period, would have to quarantine for a full 14 days. She said “close contact” can be difficult to determine, so the district would rely on information obtained from teachers and staff in the classroom. If there is uncertainty, Nuzzo said the district would err on the side of caution and quarantine the entire cohort.
Pat Nuzzo with VPS said a cohort would not have to test negative in order to return to school if they aren’t experiencing symptoms. Nuzzo said the district’s contact tracing process includes two follow-ups with all close contacts.
One thing that’s true of districts across the board: officials want families to help make sure kids are healthy and not symptomatic before coming to school. That means checking for things like a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, among other things.