MONTGOMERY, Ala. – As schools across the state prepare to reopen for the 2020-2021 school year amid a pandemic, it appears the Alabama Department of Public Health could be playing a much larger role in students’ lives — including who is contacted about a student testing positive for the virus. And, who should be quarantined following a positive test.
Alabama State Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey told WHNT News 19 Thursday state education officials will not be involved in the COVID-19 notification process.
The Alabama State Department of Education released Friday its 2020-2021 Roadmap for reopening schools, but it does not directly address what schools should do if a student tests positive for COVID-19. The 46-page document lays out guidelines, but leaves numerous questions unanswered, including how to disinfect areas where students who test positive have been, notification of parents, and who should be quarantined.
WHNT News 19 asked Mackey about protocols for addressing a student testing positive for the virus.
“Whoever conducts that test is required to report that to the department of public health and then public health takes it from there,” said Dr. Eric Mackey.
Mackey says ADPH, not the school system, decides what happens next. ADPH also conducts contact tracing.
“There definitely is the possibility that a whole class could be closed down. Again, public health will do that contact tracing, but there’s a chance in doing contact tracing, they might send home, say all the members of the volleyball team,” he said.
Contact tracing is designed to notify people that they could have been exposed to COVID-19 because of contact with the infected person and stop the chain of virus transmission.
“If it’s an elementary child or someone who is underage according to HIPAA, then they’re going to interview the parents. And they’re going to do contacting based on that,” he said.
He says privacy laws are something parents and education officials will have to navigate carefully.
WHNT News 19 asked Mackey if a student tests positive, will there be notification to families of other children who could have been exposed?
“I think that’s a question you’re going to have to ask the department of public health,” Mackey answered. “It’s my understanding that the positive test, whoever administers it has to notify public health and public health takes it from there. Our department is not involved in contact tracing.”
Dr. Karen Landers with ADPH says after a student tests positive those considered to be a “contact” should be notified within 24 hours. A contact is …
“A person who has spent a period of time, 15 minutes, less than 6 feet proximity,” she explained.
Will families be notified if a student from their class is awaiting test results? ADPH says it depends.
“When you have a person who is highly symptomatic, that could have already been in contact with a case, then you might have to notify more people while a test is pending,” Landers said.
APDH is supposed to take the lead in this, but they are going to need help. The department of public health plans to work with UAB and an outside company on contact tracing. School systems can play a role, but its unclear if they will.
“If a local school board wants to do that then they just need to work with public health about that. There are certainly a lot of concerns, HIPAA concerns out there,” Mackey said. “Public health is well-versed in those how to do that work. So, I can’t say that absolutely nobody in local systems would ever be involved, but that would be a decision between the health department and that local school.”
WHNT News 19 reached out to districts in Madison and Morgan counties that say they are still developing their plan to address this. So, questions remain.
Landers says if the health department determines a student has been exposed to COVD-19, they will be asked to quarantine for two weeks even if their test results are negative for the virus.
Dr. Mackey says the state has purchased an online curriculum school systems can use for students who cannot be present in the classroom.
WHNT News 19 has reached out to multiple districts in the North Alabama. At this time it appears many are still creating their own plan to address these issues.
A spokesperson from Huntsville City Schools sent us the following statement:
“HCS shared three learning frameworks including traditional, blended, and virtual for the upcoming school year. In that regard, district leaders are planning for numerous scenarios and developing wellness protocols to promote a safe and healthy environment. District leaders will remain in consultation with local and state health officials for their guidance and expertise to combat the spread of illness. Administrators will share the district’s Reset Plan at the HCS Board of Education meeting on July 9, 2020.”
This is a portion of the statement that was sent to WHNT News 19 from a Madison County Schools spokesperson:
“The Madison County School System is working diligently on its plan for back to school in August. This will be a comprehensive plan that will address questions and concerns about student safety and health.
The school system formed a task force that included parents, community leaders, health professionals, teachers, and administrators. They provided insight needed to help create our back to school plan.”