Some schools are leaving contact tracing to health officials

By: - August 24, 2021 5:00 am
Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a measure to allow private school vouchers in only Davidson and Shelby Counties don't violate the state's home rule law.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a measure to allow private school vouchers in only Davidson and Shelby Counties don’t violate the state’s home rule law.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Last year when its schools reopened for in-person learning in February, Sumner County public school staff and nurses took the lead in contact tracing — reaching out to students, teachers, parents and staff to inform them of close contacts on school buses and in classrooms with COVID-positive or symptomatic individuals.

This year the Middle Tennessee district — like others across the state — is declining to take on the labor intensive task. Instead Sumner County school officials informed its local health department it can no longer shoulder the responsibility. Contract tracing for these schools is now being conducted by the local public health department.

The transition has not gone smoothly.

Sumner County Director of Schools on Friday called out the local health department, which is operated by the Tennessee Department of Health, for its “poor performance” in contact tracing as complaints from angry parents flooded his office saying they were hearing about positive classroom cases in their child’s class, school bus or extra curricular activity, but had gotten no word from school or health officials.

As schools return to an in-person school year during a resurgence in COVID infections — more than 23,000 Tennessee school-age children have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 1 –an increasing number of Tennessee school districts have declined to take on the task of contact tracing.

The shift, school officials say, is partly a result of communications from the Tennessee Department of Health this month saying that school districts can no longer enforce quarantine rules for asymptomatic close contacts of infected individuals — one of the purposes of a contact tracing phone call.

The sole authority to enforce quarantines for those potentially exposed to the virus belongs to local and state health departments, which are leaving it up to parents to respect their recommendations, rather than requirements, to keep exposed children home, an Aug. 18 email to school officials stressed.

“As with much during the pandemic (choice to abide by mandatory/optional mask recommendations, choice to seek vaccination when eligible, choice to follow public health isolation/guidance, etc.) — we depend on individuals to make responsible choices that not only protect themselves but that also help protect others in their community,” read an email from Dr. Deidra Parrish, medical director for the Tennessee Department of Health’s Mid-Cumberland Region.

A directive from the Tennessee Department of Health saying that school districts cannot enforce quarantine rules for close contacts of infected individuals — one of the purposes of a contact tracing phone call — has made tracking more difficult and resulted in angry parents.

“We recognize this doesn’t always happen, but there has not been a desire by departmental senior leadership and our general counsel to pursue legal action against individuals who do not abide by our recommendations,” the email said.

Schools do retain the authority to keep sick or symptomatic children out of school.

In Hamblen County, school officials will no longer do contact tracing for middle and high school students, although it will continue to alert parents of children exposed to COVID in elementary schools. Likewise, Maury County Public Schools will only provide contact tracing in grades K-4. In Knox County, schools relied on the county’s health department for contact tracing last year but supplied seating charts and bus surveillance footage and provided school nurses to assist. The district will no longer be providing that information to the health department this year.

In Sumner County, parent frustration over lack of communication about potential COVID exposure in schools prompted Director of Schools, Del Phillips III, on Friday to write an open letter saying he was “frustrated and also disappointed in the timeliness and credibility of notifications provided to parents by our local health department.”

“We hear and understand parents’ concerns that you are not getting information from the health department in a timely manner,” Phillips said. “Bottom line, their poor performance impacts parents’ access to critical information necessary to make informed decisions for your students.”

Parents, Phillips said, were being told by Sumner County public health officials that the school wasn’t providing necessary information for effective contact tracing.

“This is simply not true,” he said. “Sumner County Schools has always provided all requested information immediately to the local health department, which we are legally required to do.”

Sarah Tanksley, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health — which operates the county health department — noted that “schools are expected to supply a list of identified close contacts, seating charts, and rosters to the extent those documents are maintained (for bus, classroom, lunchroom, or athletics settings, as applicable).”

Phillips said the school district would take an extra step to provide health officials with limited access to class rosters and parent contact information. “This will give them a direct link to all the necessary information they need to successfully contact trace positive cases,” he said.

Beginning this week, Sumner County Schools will also begin notifying parents through its parent messaging system when an individual in their child’s classroom has tested positive, Phillips said. 

“We believe notifying parents of potential exposure in a more timely manner than the health department’s current process will give parents the ability to monitor their student for symptoms and to make the best medical decision for them. Close contact tracing and issuing quarantine recommendations remain the responsibility of the health department,” Phillips said.

Department of Health officials previously took a different stance on school enforcement of quarantines, threatening schools with sanctions when individuals identified as close contacts returned to school early from a mandatory quarantine.

“It has come to our attention that individuals who have been identified as close contacts to COVID-19 cases have been returning to schools in your district before the end of their quarantine periods,” a letter to Phillips said. “Failure to abide by these guidelines may result in the formal issuance of a Health Directive to individuals facilities who do not comply. Please ensure that public health guidance is being appropriately implemented in your school district.”



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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.