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School Districts Play Key Role In Tracking The Coronavirus

Students arrive for the first day of school Aug. 24 at Duello Elementary School in Lake St. Louis. Wentzville is one of the few St. Louis-area school districts to open in person. It'll offer in-school instruction two days per week.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Students arrive for the first day of school Aug. 24 at Duello Elementary School in Lake St. Louis.

Health departments in the St. Louis region are counting on school districts to track how the coronavirus is spreading within their hallways.

Administrators and health departments are working to hone contact tracing systems for schools returning to in-person classes. When students test positive for the virus, nurses and administrators will try to determine whom they came in contact with.

Most public school districts in Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles counties started in-person learning last month. School administrators say infection rates are low enough for students and staffs to return. In St. Louis and St. Louis County, all public school districts decided to hold online classes only this semester.

“As we plan for the return back to schools, we recognize that COVID is in the community, and it's likely that it will be within the district,” said Kenneth Roumpos, deputy superintendent of the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County.

Administrators say school personnel play a large role in containing the virus. Teachers and school bus drivers will keep detailed seating charts and daily logs of students’ activities. Nurses will isolate students with symptoms.

Health department officials say those efforts have paid off and are speeding up the contact tracing process for positive cases.

About 75% of Francis Howell School District’s students are returning in person this semester, Roumpos said. Parents did have an online option.

The district designated an administrator at each school responsible for coordinating contract tracing at their schools. Each coordinator will be in contact with the St. Charles Health Department.

Most schools in Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles counties have set aside classrooms or curtained areas in nurses’ offices for students with symptoms to isolate.

Teachers are prepared to work contact tracing into their routines, but Roumpos said the district aims to create a system that won’t burden them.

“Our teachers are always heroes; they go above and beyond and have a significant number of demands on them each and every day,” he said. “And this is another layer as we returned to school this year.”

If teachers do not keep accurate daily logs, then an entire class risks going in quarantine, Roumpos said.

Administrators took courses in contact tracing over the summer, but the district did not require all school personnel to do so.

Parents are often informing schools their child has tested positive for the coronavirus before the health department knows the test results, said Jaclyn Brown, community services manager for Jefferson County Health Department.

The department formed an Education Task Force, with four designated contact tracers, to oversee 11 public school districts, plus private schools and child care facilities.

Brown estimated that each positive case in a school takes three to six hours for her team to trace.

Fox School District, the largest in Jefferson County with nearly 12,000 students, is alternating days online and in-person.

Nurses are in charge of contact tracing for Fox, but Director of Nursing and Health Services Kim Schumacher said nurses have had trouble adjusting to contact tracing because every case varies.

She said she is concerned about nurses calling in sick, because there is only one per building and few substitutes are available.

In Illinois, Madison and St. Clair counties each have public schools reopening for in-person classes.

“By the time [the school] contacts us, they’ve usually identified who the close contacts are,” said Myla Blandford, deputy director of the St. Clair Health Department.

School district officials say parents will receive a phone call if their child has direct contact with a positive case. All parents will be notified by email every time a positive case happens in the school.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.