School Report Card: One district hires a 'COVID coordinator' while another declares state of emergency

·10 min read
School nurses, as well as administrators are being taxed to the limit in many districts because of their extra pandemic-related duties — something that's prompted a New York District to hire a
School nurses, as well as administrators are being taxed to the limit in many districts because of their extra pandemic-related duties — something that's prompted a New York District to hire a "COVID coordinator" and a group of Ohio school nurses to declare a state of emergency. (Photo: Getty Images)

Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

New York school district hires a 'COVID coordinator' to handle student cases

A so-called "COVID coordinator" has been hired by New York's Central Square Central School District to help handle all the practical and administrative work associated with school coronavirus cases.

"We have to go to that building's principal, look at the seating chart, and see who was around the student in class," Superintendent Thomas Colabufo tells Yahoo Life, referring to all the work schools need to do once they're informed by the local or state health department that a student or teacher has tested positive for COVID-19. "Students' masks are down when they're eating and they can't be less than six feet apart or they have to be quarantined." 

Bus schedules and seating charts for the ride to and from school also need to be analyzed to see who was seated around the person who tested positive, as well as any sports activities the infected student may have participated in. "We have to go back two days prior to the onset of symptoms because that's the contagious period," Colabufo says. Then the surrounding students' vaccination statuses need to be referenced and, if they've been vaccinated against COVID, they need to see the school nurse, who can verify that they don't have symptoms. "If they have symptoms, they have to quarantine," Colabufo says. Unvaccinated students also need to quarantine, regardless of symptoms. And, of course, families need to be informed, and many have questions. 

"All of that information turns into a huge spreadsheet, and the work can happen during the day or after-hours, including on weekends," Colabufo says. "Principals were spending 10 hours a day working up all COVID cases and weren't able to do their jobs."

So, district officials came up with the idea to hire a COVID coordinator to do the work — it was just difficult to find someone who was actually willing to take on the task. Colabufo says he approached several people about the job and was turned down by all of them. Finally, the district posted the job and had one applicant, who got the gig.

Now the COVID coordinator "has been working 14-hour days" due to all of the cases the district has seen, Colabufo says. Last year, he points out, there were 216 COVID-19 cases in the district between students and staff; there have already been 165 cases this year, in just the first month of school. 

The superintendent says that having a COVID coordinator has been a huge relief for his staff. "Nobody could sustain all of the extra COVID work they were doing on top of their regular work," he says, noting that other districts in the area are beginning to hire COVID coordinators as well, and that he expects more to follow for those who still have principals doing double duty. "I think you're going to start to see that change," he says. 

Ohio district's school nurses have declared a state of emergency over COVID cases

Nurses in Ohio's large Columbus City Schools district have declared a state of emergency over the pandemic. On Tuesday, the Columbus Education Association (CEA), the union that represents the nurses and other school staff, made the declaration, said their working conditions are unsafe, and shared changes the nurses want the school board to adopt.

Among the specific requests of the nurses: Vaccination or bi-weekly testing requirements for all Columbus City School district staff; rapid home testing kits for all students and families; daily electronic symptoms-screening checklist to be completed by students; COVID-compliance task forces for every school building; and other demands including air purifiers, contact-tracing overtime hours and more high-level meetings regarding health decisions. 

Representatives from the CEA and Columbus City Schools did not respond to Yahoo Life's requests for comment. According to a district COVID-19 dashboard, 202 students and staff were diagnosed with new cases between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6, causing 1,988 new people to go into isolation or quarantine. The district serves 50,000 students in 112 schools.

Experts agree that pandemic duties have been a lot for school nurses to juggle. "School nurses have to perform activities related to COVID in addition to all their regular duties that existed before COVID," Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. "This isn't realistic." 

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that there is a "significant stress" on school nurses to juggle the extra workload that comes with caring for children during a pandemic and "constantly interfacing with students that may be infected." He adds, "It's a lot."

The CEA shared on Thursday that the Columbus City Schools board will now allow a "limited number of voluntary, at-home BinaxNow COVID-19 rapid test kits for any student/staff member in a school/transportation center who is symptomatic or a close contact of a positive case."

Virginia school district will provide students and staff with COVID testing kits

Virginia's Suffolk Public Schools district announced this week that it will provide BinaxNow COVID-19 test kits to teachers, staff and students who develop symptoms of COVID-19 while they're at school or who are identified as close contacts to a known case of COVID. Those who develop symptoms outside of school are being encouraged to stay home.

The kits will be supported by a telehealth session from an eMed medical provider, and are designed to be used at home. The eMed staffer will then report the results to the Virginia Department of Health and the school district. 

A negative test result will not reduce the length of time for quarantine of a close contact, though. "It remains at 14 days from last exposure," the announcement reads. Instead, "kits being used by close contacts may aid in identifying asymptomatic or presymptomatic COVID-19 positive individuals — helping to direct next steps and reduce further spread."

Suffolk Public Schools reported 50 new COVID-19 cases for the most recent week available, that of Sept. 27. The district has nearly 14,000 students.

Providing COVID tests through school helps open up accessibility to families who otherwise may not be able to find or afford these kits, Russo says. And, he points out, if students and staff have the tests easily accessible, they're more likely to use them to get a better idea of their COVID status.

While the district still requires students and staff to quarantine when they're a close contact of someone with COVID-19, knowing if someone is positive or negative can help influence their behaviors outside of school, Watkins says. "Once someone knows they are positive, they then can begin to isolate which helps to block further transmission in the community," he says. 

Chicago Public Schools say they were 'over-quarantining' students

Chicago Public Schools announced on Tuesday that the district will be shortening its quarantine time from 14 days to 10. Officials from the district said that COVID-19 case rates have stayed low and transmission has not increased significantly since the school year began.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez outlines COVID-19 response efforts during a press conference at City Hall last week. At left is Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, Dr. Allison Arwady. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez discussed COVID-19 response efforts during a press conference at City Hall. (Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“We’re doing this because that’s what the science is telling us to do now,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in a press conference. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also spoke out about the changes, noting that the district had been "over-quarantining" students and staff. 

"Over-quarantining creates chaos and that should not be a thing," she said. "It's pretty straightforward. We have to be very clear with protocols. We have to not put that burden on building principals; that's not fair to them. And we have to be very transparent with parents."

According to the Chicago Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard, there were 1,639 new reported cases between Aug. 29 and Oct. 7. A little over 7,000 students and staff were in isolation or quarantine as of Thursday. The district serves 340,658 students. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that students and staff who have been exposed to a close contact with COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days after the exposure — but that some areas may offer an option to shorten quarantine to 10 or even seven days with a negative test result.

Russo says that shortened quarantine times can work, especially with the Delta variant dominating cases in the country. "Some new cases may pop up after day 10, but the percentage is small," he says. "Most cases would present by day 10." Watkins says the district should "closely monitor" new case counts after the shift. "If they see a spike, then returning to 14 days may be needed." 

Parents sue school districts over mask mandates

Parents in several school districts across the country are suing to block mask mandates that have been put in place. 

In Michigan, more than 200 parents in the Rock Ridge School District filed a lawsuit in court on Monday to try to block the district from implementing a mask mandate for students, teachers and visitors, according to NBC affiliate KBJR. The mask mandate is part of a new COVID-19 mitigation plan approved by the school board last week. Masks were first required in schools on Monday.

Rock Ridge school officials say on the district's website that the mask mandate may lift if the community bi-weekly COVID ratios reach under 30 per 10,000 for two consecutive reporting periods (the latest available ratio shows that it is 61.19). "Consequently, we need the rate to drop for our students to go without a mask," officials said. A Rock Ridge School District representative did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

In California, a group of parents is suing the Dunham School District over its mask mandate. The lawsuit wants to block the small district of 140 students from continuing to implement an outdoor mask mandate, alleging that it infringes on parents' rights and goes beyond guidance from public health authorities, according to The Press Democrat. The Dunham School District's superintendent and principal did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment. 

Experts say mask mandates are important for keeping children safe in school."Masking is one of the most effective ways to prevent COVID and to prevent infected individuals from spreading it," Watkins says. "Because it is such an important tool in the public heath tool box, masking should be promoted as much as possible." 

But Russo says that the need for masking in outdoor settings is variable. "Indoors, yes, but outdoors...it depends on the circumstances," he says. "If it's not crowded, it's not really needed." Still, he points out, mask mandates as a whole in schools are important. "Children are not bullet-proof," Russo says.