Wilson County’s two public school systems continue to rely on contact tracing to minimize the impact of COVID-19 within school buildings as case numbers continue to rise in the county.
Both Wilson County Schools and the Lebanon Special School District utilize teams at the school and district levels to close contacts of students and faculty infected with COVID-19.
“Each school has a team of administrators along with the school nurse that oversees contact tracing,” said Chuck Whitlock, Wilson County Schools Health Services supervisor. “Teachers, coaches, bus drivers and nutrition staff are often called on by that school-level team to help identify close contacts.”
Whitlock said he, along with Christina Harris, Supervisor of Educator Effectiveness, and Alissa Slack, Nursing Services Coordinator, receive numerous calls each day from school teams to help them through unique cases, curveballs and other atypical situations.
“We spent a lot of time in August and September helping each school team through their first several rounds of contact tracing, which has helped the schools be much more confident with the cases that are the most straight forward. Nurse Slack and I continue to monitor the school COVID report submissions in an effort to avoid contact tracing errors,” Whitlock said.
Lebanon Director of Schools Scott Benson said the district has a team of about six people that oversees the contact tracing process, led by Lebanon Assistant Director of Schools Becky Kegley.
“She’s the one that communicates daily with the (Wilson County Health Department) and she would get the initial call from a school if the school has to report something to us,” Benson said. “At the school level, it’s the school nurse and one administrator. We’ve learned over time the fewer people doing this, the better, just because there’s so many scenarios out there and we want to be as consistent as possible within the guidelines.”
Whitlock said the number of COVID-19 cases within the schools doesn’t show the full story of the impact of the cases.
“One school could have a limited number of close contacts as a result of three positives because they were not at school during the infectious period, they were able to socially distance, or their cohort group was relatively small,” Whitlock said. “Another school could have a dozen or more teachers along with 50 students out for two weeks with their three positives.”
Whitlock said staffing impact is the quickest way for COVID-19 to disrupt school.
“A large number of close contacts also causes school-level and district-level leadership to re-examine the school structures to mitigate the impact of future positive cases,” he said. “When a school has to go remote, it is a significant disruption to all of the impacted families and forces teachers into an unfamiliar realm. It is a last resort that our district does not want to use unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Several schools have gone to remote learning in the Wilson County Schools district due to COVID-19.
“We really feel a responsibility to have school open and provide an education on a daily basis if it’s safe to do that,” Benson said. “With our procedures in place, the hard work that our COVID team is doing every day to act and move quickly on contact tracing to remove people from school settings that we need to remove, we feel like, up to this point, we’ve stayed in front of it.”
Benson said he’s spoke with several school district directors around the state who are facing similar issues, most of which have had to close at some point.
“We really appreciate our folks and the job they’re doing. This is hard. It’s hard for everybody. It’s hard for our community and families, and we know that. Our teachers are doing a tremendous job being flexible and adjusting on the fly on how they deliver instruction and if they have to transition to digital learning or being in the building. I can’t say enough how much we appreciate what they’re doing. Our COVID team is really working around the clock — late nights and early mornings — to try and stay on top of this,” Benson said.
Wilson County recently surpassed 6,000 cases as the number of new COVID-19 has steadily risen since September.