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Seating charts pitted against COVID-19 quarantines
Clatskanie Middle/High School put up plastic shields so students could take off their masks at lunch and still visit, which eighth grader Kelby Evenson said she appreciates. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
A Clatskanie high school football player had a fever and began coughing Saturday, Oct. 30. School staff heard about it and were ready Monday morning to intercept players for COVID-19 testing before they could interact with other students.
Two more players tested positive and were quarantined. Nine players in all who had shared a huddle at the game were quarantined for at least 10 days, but a larger spread within the northwest Oregon school was averted.
That’s a big win, said Clatskanie School District nurse Anne Dines.
School leaders say quarantines that sideline staff and deny class time are the greatest threat to in-person education this year. Oregon districts such as Clatskanie are taking aggressive preventative measures to ward off COVID-19 quarantines and keep their doors open.
Oregon Department of Education guidance says unvaccinated students and staff who have been “exposed” to COVID-19 must quarantine. An exposure is more than 15 minutes in a day within 6 feet of an infected person. Students, but not adults, can be within 3 feet if wearing masks properly.
Using its meticulous seating chart records, Clatskanie alerted the parents of every student who was near the sick player for 48 hours before he showed symptoms. Those students were offered free tests, but they didn’t have to quarantine because Clatskanie scrupulously follows masking and distance guidelines.
When a case pops up, the district interviews parents and students, checking for siblings, extracurricular activities and any other possible transmission vectors.
“I feel like I am a detective,” said Dines. “Communication is key.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 14-day quarantine for exposures, but that can be shortened to as few as seven days with no symptoms and a negative test. Oregon has not set up a “test-to-stay” program that would allow an immediate return.
Like many districts, Clatskanie offers diagnostic testing to identify cases, but a negative test can’t keep an exposed student in school.
The Oregon Health Authority lets counties set quarantine rules and encourages school districts to work with local authorities to set standards. Clatskanie’s Columbia County requires a 10-day quarantine for unvaccinated exposures.
Bree Dusseault of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center, said 7- to 10-day quarantines are the most common among the nation’s largest school districts. Few offer the opportunity to take a COVID-19 test to stay in school.
With 142 staff members and 700 students, Clatskanie had a total of 39 confirmed, presumptive or quarantined COVID-19 cases through the end of October, including five staff members. Superintendent Cathy Hurowitz said the number of students affected is similar to illnesses in a typical year, although the quarantines make for longer out times.
COVID-19-related quarantines and staff shortages have impacted all the districts in Columbia County, where the test positivity rate of 9.4% was higher than the state average of 6.4% at the end of October.
Hurowitz delayed the start of school two weeks to give the delta variant surge time to quiet down and to get procedures in place.
Students are greeted before they ever enter school to make sure they have masks. Just inside the door, everyone gets their temperature checked. If someone is showing symptoms, the student is taken immediately to a quarantine room for a possible COVID-19 test.
The district rearranged its K-6 school to put K-2 mostly in a separate building and changed its bus plan so those students are dropped off there. Rows of squares with the centers 6 feet apart line the covered walkways outside the classrooms. Students eat their breakfasts in the squares unless the weather is horrendous. If they eat inside, teachers challenge them to keep it under 15 minutes so they can get their masks back on.
Elementary Principal Kara Burghardt said an enormous amount of early planning has made all the safety precautions mostly routine now, demanding little extra time.
Grades K, 2, 4 and 6 eat lunch outside unless it is raining with high winds. Long tables are set up on a covered basketball court. With the weather getting worse, a local contractor has volunteered to plastic wrap two sides of the open structure to block the wind.
Grades 1, 3 and 5 eat inside at tables with individual plastic shields for the spaced-apart seats. Students can safely take their masks off to eat and socialize, but teachers patrol the aisles to make sure they are respecting distances.
The middle/high school indoor lunch tables also have plastic shields and adult monitors.
Eighth grader Kelby Evenson said she doesn’t mind the shields because she can still visit with friends. Evenson was quarantined after being exposed to COVID-19, and she said the school’s efforts make her feel safer.
Evenson was disappointed she had to stay home, but she said her teachers emailed her work and she was able to keep up.
Jim Helmen, director of student support and innovation, said students are missing more class days because of quarantines but not missing more instruction time. Last year’s distance learning experience, he said, has better prepared teachers to support students at home for any reason.
Helmen’s daughter, junior Maya Helmen, was feeling behind Monday, Nov. 1, after returning from a two-week quarantine. Maya was really sick for the first week and couldn’t do any work. Although teachers kept in touch with her, she said, the workload wasn’t lessened and she missed lectures.
Clatskanie has set up systems to get students work and keep them connected with teachers, but as the state has learned, there is no substitute for in-person classes.
Everyone who had prolonged contact with Maya before she showed symptoms was contacted for testing.
“I’m just glad I didn’t spread it to people I care about,” she said.
Jim Helmen said it’s all part of a step-by-step plan.
“We have mitigating layers of ‘What are we going to do if …?’” he said.
Rigorous seat charting on the bus, in class and at lunch is the key to successful contact tracing and avoiding needless quarantines, district leaders say.
“It truly is knowing where our kids are at any given time,” Helmen said. “We know who is in whose car on what night.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA