County of Orange officials are renewing reinforcements to local school districts struggling to manage and track the spread of COVID-19 among their students and staff.
The county’s support comes as some school districts are struggling or falling behind on their COVID-19 tracking efforts, with Orange County Supervisors approving a year-long plan on Tuesday to send additional nurses out to school to help speed up the process.
There was no public discussion by supervisors about the issue during their Tuesday meeting.
At the same time parents and teachers across the county have been questioning the accuracy of those dashboard reports with many saying the numbers don’t match the emptiness of classrooms during the county’ fourth COVID surge.
The additional support from the county comes on the heels of the California Department of Public Health’s updated guidance on contract tracing and quarantining earlier this month to streamline districts’ efforts.
Districts now have the option to stop notifying individual students within six feet of anyone who tests COVID positive and instead implement “group tracing,” or sending generic letters to anyone who was in the classroom or spent more than 15 minutes with that student or teacher.
“This strategy also allows for schools to provide safe in-person instruction without undertaking intense (and often protracted) contact tracing processes to identify individual students within a specified radius of someone infected.”State guidelines on group tracing
The new group tracing guidelines also recommend all those exposed take a COVID test within 3-5 days after exposure.
The students who test may continue to participate in all school activities unless they test positive or develop symptoms under those guidelines.
If they test positive the guidance dictates that they should isolate for five days and can come back if the symptoms are not present or are resolving and if they test negative after the fifth day.
But for some OC parents and teachers, the group tracing approach just provides them with what they describe as “vague information” that does not help them make an informed decision on how best to protect their children.
Some like Alison Waite, a Saddleback Valley parent, feel school districts have given up.
“My child has been quarantined as a close contact twice this year. Now, I have no idea if the person that was identified was near my child or not.”Alison Waite, a Saddleback Valley parent
She said the new approach leaves it up to the parents to do their own contact tracing of sorts by talking to their children to see how exposed to COVID they may be.
“I have to ask them ‘Oh, someone in your class had COVID? Who was it? Or who was absent?’ to kind of figure it out,” Waite said. “‘Do you sit by them? Are they next to you? Do you eat lunch with them?’”
She said when contact tracing was in place a general letter was sent out along with letters and instructions to families of students who were in close contact with the person who contracted COVID.
Waite said now she gets a daily email with a list of classrooms that a COVID positive person had been in, but no indication of how many kids in that room had COVID.
She also said she’s been getting COVID notifications from schools for two years now, but it’s now alarming based on the sheer number of notices she’s getting.
“You’re sending your kid to school with a guarantee that somebody is COVID positive in their class,” she said.
In a news conference last Tuesday, Orange County Public Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said the onslaught of new cases forced state officials to shift to group tracing.
“When the case rate is so high as it is right now, the school really can’t support the individual tracing effort and that’s why [state public health department] came up with group tracing,” Chau said.
The County’s Health Care Agency also issued a health order mirroring the new state guidelines.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Sanghyuk Shin, said in an interview Tuesday that contract tracing is one of the “bread and butter” public health response tools used in viral outbreaks – decades before COVID.
“It’s an essential part of what we can do to try to reduce the spread. That said, when the rates are as high as they are now, with so many people getting COVID, I think it is realistically very difficult to achieve good contact tracing,” he said.
Santa Ana Unified, one of the largest districts in the county, quietly took their dashboard down because officials didn’t believe it was providing data on the numbers in the most accurate way.
District Spokesperson Fermin Leal said Monday they are working to create a more up to date version of the dashboard.
Saddleback Valley Unified removed their dashboard altogether, citing their inability to keep up with the surge. They restored it following complaints from parents.
The initial contract was implemented in August of last year, and initially went toward hiring 48 licensed vocational nurses and registered nurses and an additional 59 nurses last year to help smooth the reopening of schools for the 2021-22 school year.
The contract runs through the end of the year, with options to extend it as far as four years at a cost of no more than $707,400.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.