New state COVID-19 contact tracing rules welcomed by local schools

Hamilton Schools - and others across the region - are moving on evaluating and implementing new state health officials' guidelines for reducing COVID-19 contact tracing in schools among students and staffers who test positive for the virus. The new rules were released late last week. (File Photo\Journal-News)

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Hamilton Schools - and others across the region - are moving on evaluating and implementing new state health officials' guidelines for reducing COVID-19 contact tracing in schools among students and staffers who test positive for the virus. The new rules were released late last week. (File Photo\Journal-News)

The recent loosening of COVID-19 contact tracing requirements by state health officials is welcomed by area school officials but the new procedures are still being formulated by some local school leaders as to how they will be applied to their schools.

Others, like Madison and Fairfield Schools and more have quickly adopted the new, more lenient guidelines.

Last week saw the Ohio Department of Health issue the new contact tracing procedures for infected students and school staffers.

The ODH is allowing local health departments and schools to stop universal contact tracing for COVID-19, according to a memo from Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.

ExploreCOVID contact tracing rules change for schools, health departments

“The quick spread of the omicron variant and its rapid clinical course have made universal contact tracing, case investigation and exposure notification impractical when combined with newly reduced timelines for quarantine and isolation,” Vanderhoff wrote.

That’s a step in the right direction but hardly a sweeping solution for school staffs experiencing historic shortages and burn-out due to the extra responsibilities imposed by the pandemic, said Ed Theroux, superintendent of Talawanda Schools.

“The amount of work that our nurses, office staff - and others - have had placed on them during the pandemic in order to collect accurate data has been very difficult to manage. Our employees are doing more than one job every single day due to the number of quarantines, so the changes will alleviate some stress,” said Theroux.

“That said, the pandemic is still creating a lot of burdens for our students, staff, and families and we greatly look forward to either an end to the pandemic or a comprehensive plan from our state or national government in which to manage this crisis better. Public schools have had to bear much of the burden during this time,” he said.

ODH officials now are ordering local health departments to shift to a cluster- or outbreak-based model, and prioritize people in high-risk residential settings like nursing homes and prisons, or clusters of cases related to new variants.

Vanderhoff said local schools also can discontinue universal contact tracing. But he said they should continue to follow the policy of “Mask to Stay, Test to Play.”

Madison Schools Superintendent Jeff Staggs released a statement to school parents shortly after the state’s announcement declaring the quick adoption of the new rules.

“After reviewing the new guidelines set forth by ODH, Madison will discontinue contact tracing unless otherwise instructed by the Butler County Health Department.”

Staggs’ statement said Madison will continue to “allow asymptomatic students to attend school while wearing a mask if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.”

Other area school districts saw officials still evaluating the state orders as to what specifically they will mean to their schools.

Mike Wright, associate superintendent of Hamilton Schools, told the district’s school board late Thursday during its meeting that “what we believe this is going to do is minimize the amount of contact tracing we will have to do in the schools.”

“There are a few questions we needed answered based on this latest guidance but as soon as we get those answered, we will probably be putting out some updated guidance to our schools to our administrators to our families on what this means moving forward,” Wright.

Wright cited a recent example of the time-consuming complexity of student contact tracing from Hamilton High School.

“One day we had 18 positive (COVID-19) cases of students. You take those 18 positive cases times seven classes a day for each individual kid and taking a look at seating charts in every one of those classrooms – you are talking about hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and notifications.”

School nurses and other school staffers were “doing that (notifications) almost from the time they arrived at school to the time they left” said Wright.

The 10,000-students of Fairfield Schools will see the new rules adopted today , district officials announced late Friday.

“As we make this transition on Monday, it is critical for parents/guardians to monitor their children for symptoms and to keep them home if they are sick. We continue to strongly recommend the use of facial coverings by students and staff, especially during this surge,” said Fairfield officials.

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