Back to school with COVID: It's up to DPH to notify, track cases

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By the first day of school on Tuesday, rumor had it that a teacher had already tested positive for COVID-19 and may have exposed other staff who had contact with students. Camden County Schools won't say whether that’s true or not — and neither can the health department. Leading up to schools...

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By the first day of school on Tuesday, rumor had it that a teacher had already tested positive for COVID-19 and may have exposed other staff who had contact with students.

Camden County Schools won't say whether that’s true or not — and neither can the health department.

Leading up to schools reopening, the school system said parents wouldn’t be notified about positive tests and would only learn about possible exposure from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“When an employee or student of Camden County Schools receives a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, it is the responsibility of DPH to provide contact tracing, to notify anyone who may have had direct and sustained exposure to the person confirmed to have COVID-19, and to advise those affected of measures they need to take to protect themselves and those around them,” school spokeswoman Phoebe Floyd said in a statement Wednesday morning after being asked about the alleged positive.

The Tribune & Georgian also asked DPH, trying to figure out if there were school-related COVID-19 cases and if so, how many. Coastal Health District public information officer Sally Silbermann wasn’t able to answer that question yet either.

“I’m not sure how we're going to handle these kinds of school-related requests,” Silbermann told the Tribune by email Wednesday morning. “It's likely we'll defer back to the county school districts.”

The school system has cited medical privacy laws and sought legal advice to reach its stance.

“Camden County Schools will provide DPH any information they need to assist in COVID-19 tracing and notification but any official notification will happen through the Department of Public Health,” Floyd said. “These measures have been put in place to ensure we are following the laws regarding medical privacy and are ensuring that any information shared with the public is verified as accurate and in line with the protocol set forth by the Department of Public Health.”

Many parents are taking a different stance. Why cite HIPAA for COVID-19 cases yet families are notified when a student has lice? Along that vein, more than 800 people have signed a petition asking the school board to delay opening schools until everyone is required to wear a mask and other safety precautions have been implemented. The petition is posted to www.change.org/p/camden-county-board-of-education-delay-camden-county-school-openings.

The Camden branch of the NAACP has also advocated for a delay — citing the recent surge in cases — and equal opportunities for remote learners.

“Because the pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing structural race issues, we ask that you work with state officials to provide equitable funding and resources for public schools and, particularly, that you address the digital divide in homes in Camden County,” NAACP president Timothy Bessent wrote in a July 23 letter. “For example, could the state fund several broadband hotspots in public places in the northern half of Camden where internet access is notoriously limited?”

Responding to the NAACP, school superintendent John Tucker talked about the decision to reopen school in person.

“Every summer, we refer to the learning lost over the summer as the ‘summer slide’ but as we looked at the present situation, we find ourselves faced with the ‘COVID cliff,’” Tucker wrote. “Having had the doors of our classrooms closed since March of the last school year, we are faced with the reality that many of our students will need the type of concentrated remediation and support that is only available in a face-to-face classroom setting. We are faced with a learning gap that we must address immediately or our at-risk students will continue to fall behind their peers who may have the academic and extracurricular support at home to shrink the learning gap.”

Yes, children could fall farther behind, Bessent agreed in his response, but what about the risk to their health? On behalf of the NAACP, Bessent also requested that masks be required.

“Why should the educational and mental health needs of a child whose parents refuse to instruct the child to wear a mask be prioritized over those of a child with asthma?” Bessent wrote. “This seems exactly counter to the principles at play in requiring that children be vaccinated against highly communicable childhood disease, such as measles, before enrolling in school.”

The school system isn’t requiring masks but is strongly encouraging staff and students to wear masks. Students and parents may see different rules around the district though. 

School administrators and teachers can treat the coronavirus like they might a peanut allergy, Floyd said. Like there are peanut-free classrooms and schools, there may be classrooms and schools that require masks. A teacher who is at a higher risk could make masks mandatory in that classroom while the teacher across the hall may not.