When school opened in September, the number of coronavirus cases in West Liberty, Ohio, was low enough that students could go to school in person five days a week. Only about 10 percent of the district’s 1,280 students opted to stay at home and learn remotely.
Just two staff members had had COVID-19, one before school started and the other shortly after.
“It almost seemed nonexistent in our community,” said Andy McGill, an assistant principal in the K-12 West Liberty-Salem Local School District. McGill oversees the remote learning program on top of his normal administrative duties—which now include COVID-19 response and contact tracing.
But around early November, the number of students affected by the coronavirus started to grow, leaving McGill, a secretary, the elementary school principal, and the school nurse feeling overwhelmed.
Through the end of November, nearly 140 of the district’s students had missed school either because they had contracted COVID-19 or had been exposed to the coronavirus and had to quarantine. Sixteen staff members missed school through December because they had to quarantine.
“It’s been borderline insanity trying to contact-trace,” McGill said. “We found that the majority of the issues were coming from homes, from community spread. We would have a student who would test positive because they had a parent who had tested positive.
The Salem-West Liberty district has hammered out a iron-clad routine when there’s a positive case. Get the seating chart from the student’s teachers. If the student takes the bus, get the bus seating chart. Scour video from cafeteria cameras. Isolate students. Call their parents.
But when a middle school basketball player tested positive for the coronavirus just before Thanksgiving, it became an all-hands-on-deck effort. The athlete’s parent called near the end of the day, setting off a scramble to locate and isolate students before any could get on the bus.
It’s been borderline insanity trying to contact trace.
That one positive case “wiped out the basketball team” because the entire team had to quarantine, McGill said.
After finding out when the student first exhibited symptoms, McGill and his colleagues got to work, tracing the student’s steps on campus from 48 hours before the positive test result.
They studied footage from two days of basketball practice to see who she had close contact with.
They contacted teachers to get updated seating charts—every teacher had to file seating charts with the office at the start of the school year—to see who was sitting next to her.
They did the same with lunchroom video—that’s another place where there’s high exposure because students remove their masks to eat. Their job was made easier because student seating is assigned.
When they had a clear idea of how many kids were in close contact with the infected student, they quickly got them out of classrooms.
(The school had strict protocols in place for athletes, who were required to wear masks except when they were on the court.)
Then came the calls to parents to pick up their children and start the quarantine period. Fortunately, no one else on the team tested positive, he said.
McGill’s daughter was one of the players who had to miss practice and her teammates for nearly two weeks.
“In the first few five hours of being quarantined, we were all miserable,” McGill said. “It was life-altering in her mind.”
The hardest part, he said, is telling students they must quarantine. That was especially so around Thanksgiving when they were looking forward to spending time with family.
He remembers a 4th grader who was told she had to go home. She held it together until she was out of the room, and then broke down in tears.
“You don’t want to do that, but it’s part of it,” he said. “It does wear on you. It truly does.”
He and his staff have had to remain flexible. With coronavirus cases increasing in the community after Thanksgiving, the district switched to a hybrid schedule and only reopened for in-person learning earlier this month.
“We’re fortunate that we have our kids in the building,” said McGill. “After last spring, I really empathize with anyone who can’t have their kids in the building.”
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