Contact tracing forces ECHS into virtual format
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writes
Round 2 of the COVID-19 pandemic, a surge anticipated by health officials to evolve from Thanksgiving holiday gatherings, has forced Escambia County, Ala., school officials to implement, at least for the final week of pre-Christmas classes, a virtual-only format for Escambia County High School students.
A message posted Sunday afternoon, December 13, to the school’s Facebook page indicated that Superintendent of Education John Knott made the decision in order to minimize the possibility of new cases arising among students and teachers at the Atmore school.
The decision to close down ECHS was made after a “small number” of students contacted the school over the latter part of last week to inform officials they had “tested positive for COVID-19.”
Principal Amy Cabaniss said Tuesday the number of new cases wasn’t the deciding factor in the decision. It was the number of people with whom the sick students had come into contact while at school.
“We have by far the lowest number of any local school, as far as positive incidents among students,” Cabaniss said. “It’s our close contacts. We had less than 10 students who reported they had tested positive, but they had more than 100 close contacts with other students and teachers within 48 hours of reporting the positive test.”
ECHS administrators, staff and the county school system’s head nurse, Stephanie Alaniz, became detectives, using security camera footage to track the recent movements of the students who had tested positive. Officials even checked video for close contacts affected students made in the hallways.
“We did close-contact tracing,” the principal said, noting that each student has eight class periods during a normal day of classes, making the process an arduous one. “If a student wasn’t feeling well and had no taste or smell, we sent him or her home. We went ahead and did close-contact tracing for 48 hours prior to the student coming to the office with major symptoms. Even if the students had minor symptoms, we sent them home anyway, just to be on the safe side.”
Cabaniss added that an inability to obtain immediate test results within the community also played a part in the decision to send students home at the first sign of the novel coronavirus.
“They have a rapid test in Brewton, in Bay Minette, in Monroeville and in Andalusia, but Atmore has no rapid test,” she said. “It takes two or three days for the results to come back, so we didn’t wait until the test came back. We went ahead and took action.”
Officials posted on the ECHS Facebook page a phone number through which parents could voice their concerns over whether or not they should send their children to school this week. The response was reportedly strong enough to factor into the decision to lock down the school.
“Escambia County High School students will attend virtually this week and should not report to school,” reads the Facebook posting. “Students will not have exams but are required to complete all class work by Friday, December 18.” Friday is the scheduled beginning of Christmas break.
Cabaniss was quick to point out that closure of the school building did not represent an extended holiday for students.
“Mr. Knott made that clear,” she said. “This is not a free week out of school for teachers or students. It’s school. Our teachers are still delivering instruction online. The work will be graded, and the semester grade will be finalized. The students are working; they’re just working from home.”
Students have access to Google Classroom, Zoom, email and other virtual or online educational resources, she said.
Plans are for Cabaniss and other administrators, as well as teachers and support personnel, to report to work each day this week. They are to “communicate their expectations to students, as well as assist with assignments as needed.”
An announcement is expected at some point during the holiday break as to the date on which regular classroom routines will resume for students at ECHS and the county system’s other schools.
The twice-weekly report issued jointly on Tuesday, December 15, by Escambia County Healthcare Authority and Alabama Department of Public Health, shows the following numbers for Escambia County:
Total confirmed cases: 2,291
New cases since Friday, December 11: 57
Total deaths: 32
Deaths since Friday, December 11: None