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No clear rules on telling parents about COVID cases in schools

No clear rules on telling parents about COVID cases in schools

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If your child’s classmate becomes infected with the coronavirus, you will not be notified by the health department unless the sick child was closer than 6 feet to your son or daughter for more than 15 minutes.

Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the pandemic response for the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts, said schools are supposed to develop plans that allow each child, teacher and staffer to spend the day in a 6-foot bubble.

“If it turns out little Johnny was in school yesterday and he’s positive today, yesterday he’d have been infectious,” she said. “Each school building has a person who can tell us that nobody came within his 6-foot bubble for more than 15 minutes, or people did come within his 6-foot bubble for more than 15 minutes. Because if nobody came within his bubble for more than 15 minutes, they will not meet the definition of a close contact.”

The health department’s contact tracers reach out to only those considered close contacts.

Each school system should be developing its own plans to notify students, parents and staff when there are single or multiple cases in a classroom or building.

The health department won’t be doing that.

O’Dell said the same state code that bars health officials from talking about any individuals or any outbreaks involving nursing homes, restaurants, churches or other businesses also prohibits them from saying that any particular school is having an outbreak of COVID-19.

Dr. Norman Oliver, Virginia’s health commissioner, eventually decided to name long-term care facilities with outbreaks, after public pressure and what he called confusing information from the federal government.

Oliver has maintained that the health department cannot name schools, workplaces or any other businesses that are having outbreaks. The state discloses only how many have occurred in each health district.

Some Virginia lawmakers previously said they’d planned to address the state code during their August special session, but that was before the names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities began to be posted.

Schools can release information, but those contacted by The Roanoke Times said they are unable to share their plans in advance as disclosure will depend on the case.

“Each instance of a positive case in the schools is handled individually,” Roanoke County Schools spokesman Chuck Lionberger said by email. “We will follow the recommendations of the VDH and will follow their communications protocols (which I’m sure will vary depending on the nature and extensiveness of each case). Keep in mind that we also must adhere to FERPA and HIPAA, which limits what we can say.”

FERPA protects individual students’ school records, and HIPPA protects their health records.

So if a student or teacher with COVID-19 is absent, no one in the building might be aware of the reason.

“This is the same thing that is happening in workplaces right now,” O’Dell said.

The local health department is notified of every positive test result. Its case investigators contact the person and go through a list of prompts to establish who the person was near.

So the student and his parent would tell the investigator who he might have sat near, played with or been around. Those people would be contacted and advised to quarantine for 14 days.

O’Dell said the investigator will also reach out to the school’s contact tracer, who will then check to see if plans were followed to keep the 6-foot distance. She has asked the schools to be very specific in their plans and to have 6- to 10-foot bubbles for everyone.

O’Dell is recommending that schools require face coverings by all, with the exception of children with developmental or medical reasons.

O’Dell said people with infections have been cooperative so far in helping identify others they might have exposed to the disease.

“The individuals with COVID are pretty forthcoming and let people know. They aren’t keeping this a big secret, which is very helpful,” she said.

The schools also have form letters developed by the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education that they can fill send to parents to let them know of exposure.

The number of new cases in the Roanoke Valley is still increasing but at a slower rate during the last week than earlier in the summer.

During a week that O’Dell could share a little good news on the coronavirus’ slower pace, she also offered a premonition.

“We know all over the world, as soon as people started loosening restrictions and sending people back to school, numbers started going back up. So that’s what I’d expect for us as well,” she said.

Staff writer Claire Mitzel contributed to this report.

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