Greeneville City Schools will resume the full contact tracing process for positive COVID-19 cases as it did in the 2020-21 school year, the school board voted Tuesday.
The district is also conducting testing in school through an Epidemiology Laboratory Capacity Grant from the state, and the board approved a contract with Knoxville-based American Esoteric Laboratories for the testing.
Contact tracing for the 2021-22 school year was passed to the Greene County Health Department at the beginning of the school year, but Coordinated School Health Supervisor Jeannie Woolsey said school nurses still gather information to send to the Health Department and the district still sends initial notifications to families to tell them their child may have been exposed. The official notifications that students have been exposed have been coming from the Health Department since the start of the school year in August.
“When there’s a positive test, we have to submit a list to the Health Department with case contacts and information, and we send out a notification to those students’ families for safety’s sake that says, ‘you can expect to hear from the Health Department,” Woolsey explained. “There were still things that we have to do, but we were giving the information to the Health Department, and they were then trying to reach the parents.”
Contacts are being defined as those within 6 feet of the positive case for 15 minutes or more. Woolsey said she looks at class seating charts to determine contacts, and that the district has tried to cohort students to aid the process.
“Last year we were looking at this a lot more broadly, but this year we are looking at students within six feet of the student that has tested positive for more than 15 minutes,” said Woolsey.
She said the process is supposed to take only up to 48 hours, but it is difficult to say how long it could take for the Health Department to successfully reach parents, and the Health Department is overwhelmed.
“I know they try to call four times, but we have no way of knowing whether or not the parents got the notification. We just know it’s supposed to be within 48 hours,” said Woolsey. “We probably have had students coming to school that we’re infectious.”
Woolsey said the Health Department has maintained its commitment to contact tracing for school systems, but the school system resuming it will simplify it.
“They do a great job, and they are effective partners, but it’s a lot more work on our part and a lot of confusion for parents when we could just go ahead and give them the information,” Woolsey said.
Director of Schools Steve Starnes said the district has hired additional nurses to address COVID-19 and allow other nurses to focus on students’ other needs.
Resuming responsibility for contact tracing was one of the revisions to the district’s COVID-19 Framework document for the current school year that the board approved Tuesday.
Other changes included clarifying that students under 18 years old need parental consent for COVID-19 testing and adding that students displaying COVID-19 symptoms should be placed in isolation and required to wear a mask until they are taken home, which Woolsey noted is “basic infection control.” The board also voted to approve changing some wording related to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance that states students identified as close contacts who are asymptomatic and wear masks would not need to quarantine.
“The Tennessee Department of Health has said that for adults, but the CDC has not recognized that yet,” said Starnes.
The district is also conducting its own testing through an Epidemiology Laboratory Capacity grant in the amount of just under $300,000. Testing is free to students and staff, and the grant will fund the cost of $70 per test for in-school testing through American Esoteric Laboratories until funds run out. The board approved the contract Tuesday.
“Our goal is to keep kids in school. They need in-person learning,” said Woolsey. “Nothing is perfect, but we need to be as effective as possible. If kids are sick, they need to stay home, and with this grant, all of the testing is free to parents and they don’t have to go somewhere else and pay a copay.”