After starting the school year with 25 teachers and staff having a positive COVID-19 case status on the first day of school, Lumpkin County Schools entered a week-long fall break with zero employees and two students with a positive COVID-19 status, as of the system’s most recent update to its COVID-19 status across its social media platforms on Thursday, Sept. 17.
According to superintendent Dr. Rob Brown, this was to be expected all along.
“The data trends for our school system are consistent with what my peers in other districts have indicated they've experienced,” Brown said. “The data also mirrors that of our community as a whole with the number of cases in recent weeks on the decline. I think with any virus, you see times in which the spread rate is higher and eventually trickles out.”
Kerri Whitmire, who serves as the student services director over Lumpkin County Schools and has taken on a major role in the school system’s handling of COVID-19, feels that the safety measures put in place by the school have also helped bring the numbers down.
“I think that the safety measures that the students, teachers and staff are using on a daily basis has helped
to keep the numbers down,” Whitmire said. “Parents also help daily by completing health screenings with their child to make sure that he or she isn't exhibiting any symptoms before going to school.”
“I think all the precautions our students, staff, and community have been taking are certainly contributing to the improvement,” he said.
The school system reported a total of 50 students and 38 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 since August, during a virus update at the September Board of Education meeting last Monday. According to Whitmire’s report at the meeting, there has been a total of 363 people quarantined due to potential exposure to the virus. This number includes both students and their families and faculty and staff and their families. The school system itself has had a combined 250 students, faculty and staff that have been instructed to quarantine, so far this year.
However there was one statistic that Whitmire seemed extra proud of as she pointed out in her presentation.
“I want you to notice the very last bullet down here, it says three students to test positive after being placed on school quarantine and zero employees, so this shows you the process that the department of health has put in place to keep us and our students safe is working, because those right people are being identified and we can see that number has been kept low because of that, so that’s very good,” she said.
TRUSTING THE PROCESS
During the meeting, Whitmire went in-depth, explaining how Lumpkin County Schools are handling different COVID-19 related situations:
What does the process look like?
• “We have encouraged parents this year, if they have a child who is symptomatic, or if there’s someone in the household who is symptomatic, that those students remain at home and also let the school know. We have also asked for parents to let the school know if they have someone in their household or a family member that has tested positive for COVID-19 and parents have really been on board with letting the school know that they do have somebody in their family that is symptomatic, so that has helped tremendously. We also have a district-wide tracking that I do every day, we have a spreadsheet that I have for the entire district, but then it’s also spread apart by the schools, and so that way we can see any students who are quarantined due to exposure, from the department of health, or students who have tested positive for COVID-19, but also we’re tracking those students who are out for testing as well and so that is shared daily with the schools and they have live access for that at all times.”
If someone tests positive for COVID-19, what does the notification process look like?
• “The work at the school starts immediately, so as soon as they are notified of a positive case, then they hit the ground running. They do that by looking at seating charts in the buildings, all teachers in the system have turned in seating charts for all of their classes and so designated people within the building pull those seating charts and start identifying those close contacts. Remember that those close contacts are six feet for 15 minutes or longer throughout the day, and so they pull that. They also have to pull attendance records for the child that was sick as well as any of those close contacts to see if they were at school on the day that the student who was sick was there. They also have discussions with teachers to go in and say, ‘do we have who the close contacts are for this student and then the teachers have those conversations so they are asking those questions of the teachers. They also have to pull seating charts for the school busses and sometimes that’s different because we have kids that ride in the morning versus the afternoon so that is a labor of love also. But then we cannot forget those extracurricular activities. Is the child in band? Is the child in football? Any kind of fall sports, so that is looked into as well. And then also they interview the students, so the students may come down to the clinic and the nurse would ask them are they a mask-wearer? Have they been in close contact in other locations other than just the classroom during the school day specifically? And so then after that, then we have to quarantine based on department of public health guidelines for that 14-day period. So that is looked at very closely before that decision is made. All of the students found to be in contact do receive a letter from the department of health, it gives very specific guidelines, tracking symptoms and when your return date for school would be.”
How does the reporting and tracking of positive cases and exposures work?
• “Each day, schools report to the central office students who have gone for testing for COVID-19, students who have tested positive for COVID-19 and any students who they know are being tested for COVID-19, so all that is reported daily. And then each day schools do send out those quarantine letters as needed or those exposure letters as needed and each day I have to turn in a department of health report to district two health of any students who have tested positive for COVID-19 and I also include the staff members that Mrs. Head shares if we have any staff members who test positive, we have to include those in our daily report as well. And on that we also have to list the students or employees' close contacts and so the department of health does reach back out to those families, and they call me multiple times a day to interview me about those close contacts and if there’s anything else that I can add to that. And then those daily interviews do happen daily, but now for the last three weeks, we have had school-level reports that we have to turn into the department of health on top of the daily reports and those reports are a whole lot more in depth. We even have track if there are clusters, and so what a cluster is, if we send student A, who has tested positive and then we quarantine student B and within that 14-day window, student B ends up testing positive, we now have to track that as a cluster. And I have to report it that way, but then I have to track that cluster for 28 days and so it’s just a ripple effect there. And so we also do keep up with exposure lists for the students and so we not only keep up with the quarantine list and the positive list, also keep a daily reported exposure list. So just like for my own child, he’s on my exposure list with how many times he’s received an exposure letter. That helps us if we need to go back and if my son ends up testing positive within a 14-day window, then I can drill back down to see who was he possibly exposed by and then we would start that process there as well. So it’s not just a one-and-done, and then we’re finished with it, this could keep coming up within a 28-day period for students.”
Lumpkin County Schools has remained committed to sharing its COVID-19 numbers each Tuesday and Thursday on the system’s various social media accounts and has done so since the school year began. When asked why Lumpkin County Schools has decided not to share the information with parents in a daily COVID-19 report since the information is already compiled each day in a report to the department of health, Brown said “...We made the decision when school began to share data twice a week to keep our community informed on a regular basis. With the data trending downward, we haven't felt it necessary to increase the frequency of posting data.”
As for keeping the data trending in the right direction, both Brown and Whitmire stressed the importance of continuing to take all of the precautions seriously.
“We need everyone to continue being cautious and maintain safe practices,” Brown said. “We could easily see another spike in our numbers if people let their guard down. The virus still poses a significant threat to our collective safety and we must remain focused on taking steps to disinfect, sanitize and practice social distancing when possible.”