COVID-19 protocols put into action at schools

The first report of a Dubois County student testing positive for COVID-19 came in Sunday night. 

The parent of a Northeast Dubois Elementary student called school officials Sunday to report their child's positive test result. 

Then on Monday morning, administrators at Southeast Dubois Schools heard that a student at Forest Park Junior-Senior High School tested positive. 

At both schools, news of a positive case triggered a flurry of protocols laid out in their reopening plans.  

"We're doing the best we can and being as diligent as we can," Northeast Dubois Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said. "We think our protocols we put into place worked well."

As soon as the call came in, Hochgesang and other school Northeast Dubois administrators worked on contact tracing and called the parents of each close contact of the COVID-19-positive student. Each of those students must quarantine at home for 14 days from their last contact with the COVID-19-positive student.

Hochgesang declined to share how many students were affected, but shared how close contacts are determined. "Close contact" refers to anyone who is within 6 feet of a COVID-19-positive person for 15 minutes or more. On a school bus, close contacts are those who sit in the seat in front of, behind and to the side of a COVID-19-positive student. In a classroom, which students will be considered close contacts depends on where the COVID-19-positive student's desk sits in a room. If a COVID-19-positive student sits in the middle of classroom, there will be more close contacts than if the student sits on the end of a row, Hochgesang explained. Where the student sits in the cafeteria will also determine which classmates are close contacts. 

Once Northeast Dubois' school officials identified the close contacts, they called each of the parents. Although the parents will also get calls from the Indiana State Department of Health, Hochgesang said school officials wanted families to hear the news from them first.

The contact tracing process took about six hours, Hochgesang said.

For Southeast Dubois Superintendent Jamie Pund and her administrative team, the contact tracing process was a little more complicated. Since the COVID-19 positive student was in high school, administrators had to complete contact tracing for each class the student takes, rather than the single classroom necessary when an elementary-aged student tests positive. They also had to look at whether or not the student rides the bus to school and where they sit in the cafeteria. 

Once close contacts were determined, Pund and her team contacted the students' parents.

Because middle and high school students come into contact with more people throughout the course of their school day than elementary students, there is the potential to have a larger portion of the student body in quarantine after a positive case.

"It is certainly different than at the elementary level," Pund said. 

Just like at the elementary level, middle and high school students must sit in assigned seats in each class, on the bus and at lunch. For contact tracing, students' assigned seats are a must. 

"That's a big thing in being able to do that contact tracing," Hochgesang said.

In addition to contact tracing for each part of the school day, Pund and her team also had to take extracurriculars into account. For that, administrators work with club sponsors and coaches to determine who the COVID-19 positive student had close contact with during the activity. In this case, that process led to the cancellation of seven girls soccer games. 

"You need a certain number of players to play those games," Pund said. "When you have a number of girls identified as close contacts, it makes it difficult to play those games." 

Now, the students who are close contacts of the COVID-19-positive student at both Northeast Dubois and Southeast Dubois move to e-learning instruction until they are clear to return to school. To return to school, the students must quarantine without showing any COVID-19 symptoms for 14 days after their last contact with the COVID-19-positive student. 

If the quarantined students show COVID-19 symptoms, their parents will need to inform the school. For now, though, it's a waiting game. 

"We're hoping we contained it," Hochgesang said. 

Hochgesang stressed that the parents' call to school administrators was key in Northeast Dubois' quick response. Had the parents not called, Hochgesang said, it could have been Monday or Tuesday before the school heard about the positive case from the state health department. By that point, the close contacts of the COVID-19  positive students would already be back in school. 

"We really appreciate [the call] because it speeds up the process," Hochgesang said. 

Although there was a positive COVID-19 case, additional cleaning of the school buildings was not necessary, Hochgesang said. By the time the call came Sunday night, facilities had already been sanitized as part of the regular enhanced cleaning that is part of school reopening plans.

Under the countywide school reopening framework, school buildings are already sanitized after each school day, and buses are sanitized after each route. Those increased sanitation measures have been implemented at all Dubois County school corporations.

Hochgesang and Pund agreed that the protocols put in place through their reentry plans — many of which come from the county-wide framework — worked well. Having the procedures already lined up and easy to follow made a big difference, Pund said. 

Going forward, school officials will continue to follow their reopening plans and safety protocols. They will also continue to work closely with the Dubois County Health Department and state health officials. 

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