Teton School District struggles with COVID contract tracing, county to step in to support

DRIGGS — On Sunday evening, Victor resident Maura Connelly Anderson posted on social media that her Driggs Elementary School first-grader had tested positive for COVID-19.

“When the doctor tells you the test was good and they got a lot of virus on the COVID swab, what does the COVID-positive kid say?,” she half-joked online. “‘It’s not my fault, it’s the guy who ate the bats’ fault!’”

Her light approach to a weighty topic was followed by a more serious tone. Her son, she wrote, rides bus numbers 16 and 19, plays soccer on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and his first symptom was laryngitis followed by vomiting.

“Trust your kids’ tummy aches,” she wrote.

After her Sunday post, Anderson’s concerns had gone beyond her personal social media page. Unable to find information or protocols for a public school family with a COVID positive student, Anderson posted a public letter to the Community Page of Teton Valley, a catch-all Facebook stop for local news and gossip in the valley.

In the post, she outlined what she considered to be a failure in communication by the school district and Eastern Idaho Public Health. Her first problem was that she learned of the positive status on a weekend, and it was midday Monday by the time she was able to get in contact with someone at the school despite emails and phone calls prior to the first bell Monday morning. By that point, any students who had been exposed to her son had already returned to classes.

Additionally, although the district did inform parents of the new case Monday, they sent a form letter that suggested that EIPH was engaged with the case. But at that point, Anderson was still trying to get a hold of public health.

“My son’s classmates’ families were not informed of their children’s exposure to my son on Sept. 17 and 18 when he would be considered contagious,” Anderson said. “Or the fact that he was community transmission with school/busing as the most likely source.”

Only when she could get through to EIPH around 6 p.m. Monday evening to report her son’s positive status was contract-tracing initiated. The entire class was quarantined Wednesday after the teacher tested positive.

‘We need help’

On Thursday, prompted by Anderson’s public letter, officials from the county, school district and EIPH met to discuss new protocols to improve communication.

During the meeting, Teton School District Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme acknowledged communication to parents was insufficient.

“We’re doing the best we can, but communication is secondary to dealing with the crisis at hand,” he said. He added that COVID remains a top priority for the schools in the district, but admitted that staff are stretched, and principals, in particular, are wearing a variety of hats trying to fill gaps in the school day.

“No one has the ability to turn everything off and deal with COVID for three hours,” Woolstenhulme said.

EIPH Director Geri Rackow said that contact tracing is different between people in the community and students in schools. When EIPH learns of a positive adult, they start the contact tracing process. However, if a student contracts the virus at school it is the school district that must initiate the contract tracing, and ultimately inform parents about the infection.

That notification can sometimes be hampered or delayed by EIPH simply because they are investigating a large volume of new cases.

As a result of the meeting, Rackow said the health district will start prioritizing COVID case investigations of children before adults to improve the speed that school districts are informed of the cases. She did say that a 24-hour gap between when they find out and the school finds out is still likely a reality.

“The ability for the schools to act quickly is a fundamental piece of the whole process,” said Teton School Board Vice-Chairwoman Shannon Brooks-Hamby at the meeting.

Once an encrypted email is sent to the district to identify the student or staff person with COVID, it’s then up to the district, namely the principals, to start or even determine contact-tracing needs. Woolstenhulme said the district is guided by EIPH and CDC standards for contact tracing.

But Woolstenhumle said that because of the pandemic, volunteers and substitute teachers who normally work to support school staff have largely been absent this semester, thus placing the burden of the work on school staff to cover playgrounds, provide additional tutoring, answer phones all while trying to backtrack where a sick student may or may not have been.

Bill Leake, who is the Teton County representative on the EIPH board, pointedly asked how the board could help the district.

Woolstenhulme said he needed help, but what that helped looked like, he wasn’t sure.

New solutions toward better communication and testing

While other regional schools work to adjust and reconsider their COVID plans based on public demand that more in-person classes be available, Teton County has not had that kind of pushback from the community.

Teton County currently sits in the “green” level of EIPH’s COVID chart, which allows the district to remain fully open in accordance with its adopted COVID plan. EIPH has lifted Teton County’s mask mandate, but District 401’s COVID plan still requires students and staff to wear masks. Teton County and the cities of Driggs and Victor all have a mask mandate in place as well.

Officials at the meeting said it was helpful, but some work still needs to be done.

Brooks-Hamby said as a parent, she would still be at a loss to understand what she should do to navigate the communication protocol if her child was sick or tested positive for COVID — even after sitting through the meeting.

“The volume of information surrounding this and the nature that information is evolving. This is not going to be tracked by the average person,” Brooks-Hamby said. “Not until (parents) are faced with being exposed will people be engaging in what they should really be doing. When it hits home for them personally — that’s the critical point.”

Brooks-Hamby suggested the creation of a website specifically created for folks who are connected to the public school district where step by step protocol and processes could be gleaned in moments of heightened need for understanding.

Teton County Commissioner Cindy Riegel added the district needs to tap into the county’s emergency management support. With dedicated federal CARES funding, she would like the district to consider funding a dedicated person who could field calls and work on COVID contact tracing.

Teton County commissioners will consider a memorandum of understanding at Monday’s regular county meeting between the county and Teton Valley Hospital where 2,000 COVID tests purchased through the CARES Act could be dedicated to county schools, students and staff and could be administered free by Teton Valley Health.

“Some of this was inevitable, but so much of it could have been avoided if the system failure’s had not happened,” Anderson said at the end of her letter. “No one department or person should be held accountable or to blame. Parents choose to send kids to school, as did my family. Hopefully, this current situation can be an immediate starting point for corrections of these system failures. … If this can happen to my child even with the precautions we take and our proactive approach to the situation, then it most definitely can happen to each and every student attending school in the district this year.”