Two weeks of school in the "books"! Although we've certainly had our share of challenges once again this year, it has been an incredibly positive opening of school here in Gorham! We've got all our students back into our classrooms again, we've had parents and families in our schools for open houses, we have volunteers back in our schools, our athletic programs and after school clubs and organizations are back at it and the positive "buzz" across all our schools is palpable. Here's a few images to capture the first few weeks of school...just know for each picture there are 20 more behind it!
Question: What determines a close contact?
Answer: An individual has to be within 6 ft of a positive case for 15 minutes or more (cumulatively) and/or has had physical contact with a positive case. Please note that we are still conducting contact tracing very much the same as we have for the past year. This hasn’t changed. What has changed is that there are now some specific exemptions for identified close contacts regarding quarantine rules.
Question: How Does Contact Tracing Work?
Answer: How we are required to conduct contact tracing protocols is outlined specifically in the Maine CDC's "Standard Operating Procedures" or the infamous "SOP" as we lovingly refer to it as. You can CLICK HERE to view the whole document...but I thought it might provide more context to show you how it works through a fictional scenario...
- We become aware of a positive case associated with a 3rd grader at Village Elementary school
- From communications with the parent we determine when the date was that symptoms began, or if asymptomatic, we determine the date of the positive COVID 19 test. Once we determine this date, we go back two days (either from onset of symptoms or positive test result) to determine the exposure period. In this fictional case, we're going to say the date was on a Tuesday, which means we would look back on Monday only because on Sunday the student was not in school (I hope).
- We then back track everywhere the student has been on Monday when he was last in school. This includes classrooms, cafeterias, buses, playgrounds, allied arts spaces, etc. We do this mostly through seating charts provided to us by teachers and/or through video cameras on buses, and also through interviews with adult staff and if older, with students themselves.
- Through this investigative process, we determine which individuals (students or staff) were exposed to the positive case for 15 minutes or more (cumulatively) and/or had physical contact with the positive case during the exposure period. This creates our close contact list.
- Once we determine the close contact list, we look at the possible exemptions for quarantine for those on that list. Are individuals vaccinated? Were they wearing masks and remaining 3ft or further away (see chart below on next question). When done, we now have a list of close contacts and then a smaller list from that one of who is required to quarantine and under what circumstances.
- We then call each parent of the students impacted and if staff are impacted we call them to to notify them that they are close contacts. It is during this conversation that we will often ask if the close contact has been vaccinated or not. If they have, we will often ask individuals to share a photo of their vaccination card. We will talk with parents/families so they are clear on what their child has to do and what is required to return to school if they quarantine, or if they don't have to quarantine from school, what other limitations may exist.
- Once phone calls are made, we follow up with letters for all close contacts.
- Once that is complete, a COVID Community letter is sent to all staff and families in the district.
- Nurses will update the active case summary sheet on the website and report all required data to the CDC.
I will share that we have recently gotten some feedback from K-5 parents that would like us to send a letter to classrooms impacted even if their child is not a close contact. We are working on updating our processes to include this new step, hopefully beginning next week.
It is important to note that EACH CIRCUMSTANCE IS DIFFERENT, although the rules for how we conduct contact tracing are the same...some situations have no close contacts due to timing, others may have a large number of close contacts, but not many quarantines due to exemptions. It is all dependent upon each unique circumstance...but the bottom line is that the process of contact tracing and quarantining is very clearly outlined in the SOP and our staff is very well trained on how to appropriately and thoroughly conduct contact tracing processes. Contact tracing and quarantine remain a very effective means of preventing the spread of COVID 19.
Question: What are the rules that allow a close contact to be exempted from quarantine?
Answer: If a person is vaccinated, they no longer have to quarantine, but should monitor for symptoms are are recommended to still get tested 3-5 days after the exposure. If universal masking is in place and the close contact was NOT closer than 3ft from the positive contact and both were properly wearing masks the close contact would not have to quarantine from school, however they would be required to quarantine from extra/co-curriculars and outside functions. They would also need to monitor for symptoms and would be recommended to get tested within 3-5 days of the exposure. If a person is participating in pooled testing they would also not have to quarantine from school related activities but would still be required to quarantine from community events. See chart below from SOP for details:
Question: Why doesn’t the masking rule work in areas outside of the classroom?
Answer: Because the classroom is a cohort and when you move to other areas such as the cafeteria or buses, you are mixing cohorts. Additionally, in a cafeteria setting, you must remove your mask for a period of time to eat, which increases the risk of spreading COVID 19. Please remember, although it doesn't help with the contact tracing and quarantine piece, we have added air purifying units to each cafeteria as an additional layer of safety for all students.
Question: What is different now in our cafeterias than what we experienced this past spring?
Answer: Because last spring, we spread students out to 6 ft by eating in classroom areas we needed to pull a lot of staff to do this. The only way we could do that was to pull ed. Techs and support staff for far longer periods of time than usual. This meant that some students were unable to get required support services because our staff were tied up with duties. This year, we are trying not to do that, and instead we are asking students to all eat in cafeteria settings. We have reduced numbers of students per meal, but we are unable to have 6 ft. of distance between all students all the time. Because of this, when there is a close contact situation, there are larger numbers of students involved. Because K-5 students are not yet eligible for vaccines, and because they are not wearing masks while they eat, these students are required to quarantine. Although it doesn’t help with the quarantine situation, we have added air purifying units to each cafeteria space to ensure that an additional layer of protection is provided to our students.
Question: What is pooled testing and why are we not using it in Gorham at this time?
Answer: Pooled testing is a prevention strategy that is being encouraged by the MDOE, DHHS and Maine CDC to use. It involves weekly testing of defined “cohorts”. A defined cohort - say Mrs. Smith’s first grade classroom would be tested each week...all swabs would be collected and placed in a single testing “pool”, allowing you to test larger numbers of individuals in a quicker time frame. If any of the pooled tests come back positive, you would test each individual in the cohort with a Binex now antigen test to identify the specific positive cases. The positive cases would be sent home to isolate and those remaining in the pool would be able to stay in class because they would have been “caught” prior to the defined “exposure period” would have allowed them to transmit the virus. There are three major reasons why we haven’t moved forward with pooled testing in Gorham - at least NOT YET:
We do not want to send any “mixed messages” to families that would encourage any family to send students to school when ill. Families who think their children are being tested weekly might be more likely to send their children to school when symptomatic. We have sent clear messages to parents - stay home if sick - period. We do not want to to do anything that would water down this message.
Pooled testing only works if you have large numbers of participants in each cohort. We are not sure how many families would participate - YET - that is the purpose of the survey above. We would seek approximately 30% of each grade level as a target. We didn’t survey over the summer because we wanted to ensure survey participation to get the most accurate information.
Masking is a universal strategy that works, especially in conjunction with physical distancing. We know it works, because last year we proved it works. We want to focus our attention on this mitigation strategy and not have people feel over confident that they can “let their guard down” because we have another strategy in place.