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These are the contact tracing efforts Gainesville and Hall County school systems are making
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Lyman Hall Elementary students line up for their bus Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, at the end of the first day of school. - photo by Scott Rogers

The magic numbers are 6 feet and 15 minutes in Gainesville and Hall schools. Students who spend that kind of time at school with a friend who then tests positive for COVID-19 will be quarantined. And the number quarantined as of Wednesday, Oct. 7, was 161 in Gainesville, or about 2%, and in Hall, about 3%. Among those numbers are four entire classrooms in Hall and five in Gainesville that are quarantined, school officials said.

The process to determine who should be quarantined -- whether some students, a whole class or more -- involves measuring tapes, video footage and a lot of time. 

During a conversation with Times staff on Sept. 29, Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams and Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield both expressed that, contrary to what some parents may believe, decisions on which students in either district will quarantine are made through a contact tracing process that takes into account a wide variety of factors. 

"It really is a pretty amazing machine to watch spring into action,” Schofield said. 

Here’s what each school district is doing to keep tabs on positive cases in schools and make decisions on who must quarantine.  

HALL COUNTY SCHOOLS 

When a student tests positive for COVID-19 in a Hall County school, administrators work with a contact tracing team made up of contractors who have completed a 6-hour contact tracing course offered by Johns Hopkins University.  

The contact tracing team includes two full-time workers during the day and two-part time workers on nights and weekends, according to Hall County director of student services Tamara Etterling. Contact tracers are paid $18 an hour in local money, Etterling said, and the team includes Spanish speakers so the district can effectively communicate with parents who don’t speak English well. 

School principals first submit a form to the contact tracing team with information about the positive case, including what grade the student is in and what classrooms he or she has been sitting in, according to Etterling, Hall County’s director of student services. The principals themselves reference seating charts provided by teachers to find out who has been sitting close to the infected student, Etterling said. Those who have been within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive individual for more than 15 minutes are then asked to quarantine away from school for 14 days. 

“We do physically measure the distance between where an infected individual was seated and where surrounding students were located,” Etterling said. “We want to make that clear to the public, that we do physically measure that. We take this extremely seriously.” 

Etterling added that principals also talk to teachers about student activity in recent classes to determine if the infected student may have come into contact with students outside of those sitting near them.  

If the infected student is a bus rider, principals also pull video footage from buses and watch it to see who the student may have been near while riding to and from school. The same standard for exposure – within 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer – is applied to decide if other students need to quarantine.  

At the end of every day, the contact tracing team notifies the Georgia Department of Public Health of any new cases that have popped up. DPH officials use the names and contact information of the students’ families to go through a contact tracing process of their own. 

When it comes to the quarantining of entire classes, schools or even the whole school system, Hall County takes into account advice from DPH, but all final decisions are made by the district itself.   

Schofield said during the conversation with The Times on Sept. 29 that future quarantines, including a potential full school or districtwide quarantine, would not be unlikely. 

“We’re one day away from quarantines every day,” he said. “I hope it does not occur, but we’re ready for it, and it certainly would not be a surprise if we get to that point." 


GAINESVILLE CITY SCHOOLS 

Gainesville’s contact tracing process is similar to that of Hall County, with a few differences. Gainesville is also using the “within 6 feet for 15 or more minutes” qualification for quarantining students. The school system is also checking seating charts, talking with teachers and watching bus footage to make quarantine determinations.  

However, rather than a centralized contact tracing team, each Gainesville school has an individual team – referred to as a COVID response team – that is dedicated to COVID-19 case investigation, according to Deputy Superintendent Sarah Bell.  

Bell said that each school’s principal compiled their COVID response team out of employees already on staff, and teams typically include members of administration, school nurses and bilingual employees who can communicate with families who don’t speak English well.  

“Every principal made that decision just based on the staff they have available at the school,” Bell said. 

Bell said the Gainesville school system has also been keeping in constant communication with DPH, submitting names of infected students to the department as soon as possible and allowing DPH officials to go through their own contact tracing process, which involves contacting the families of infected students to discuss how far they may have spread the virus.  

She added that parents of students who may have come in contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 are contacted by both the school system and DPH. Bell said Gainesville school officials wanted to make sure they kept in personal contact with those affected so they could help solve school issues caused by quarantining. 

“Certainly we can provide the same dates that the department of public health is going to provide to them as far as how long they would need to isolate or quarantine, and we certainly let the department of public health handle all of the health-related things,” she said. “However, the school call enables us to ensure that the family has the resources they need. For instance, if a child is going to be home for an extended period of time and they might need a Chromebook or internet access, we can go ahead and have that conversation.” 

When it comes to quarantining entire classrooms, Bell said there is no “magic number” of cases in a class that would lead to that, and the school system is approaching full class quarantines on a case-by-case basis.  

She gave the example of a high school class, where students are typically capable of sitting still and staying separate from one another, being very different from a kindergarten class, where students are more difficult to control and may be moving around the room more frequently.  

“I know that frustrates people, because I know it would be much easier for there to be a simple formula,” she said. “But it’s just not that way. And when we’re in doubt, we do certainly contact DPH for their advice as well.” 

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