Longfellow Elementary School File

Second-graders line up to return to class at the end of recess Nov. 11 at Longfellow Elementary School.

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Bozeman School District is working closely with the county health department to identify close contacts of students and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19.

With daily cases in the county topping over 200 for the second time on Thursday, the district is striving to keep up with the increased number of resulting close contacts while navigating different modes of learning for the schools.

“As we’ve seen an increase in cases of staff and students, it has been really challenging to keep up with the ability to manage contact tracing for multiple cases simultaneously,” said Chad Berg, the district’s director of special education.

Berg said when the district needs to take time to finish the contact tracing, it can “hit pause and move either a classroom, grade level or a school into full remote learning” while it completes tracing.

He said Irving Elementary was a good example. After receiving a positive case notification late in the day on Nov. 2, the school decided to move 100% remote the next day to allow staff to properly contact tracing. It returned to in-person learning the following day.

Marilyn King, the district’s deputy superintendent of instruction, said school administration understands it’s difficult for families to make changes on short notice.

She said the district takes the process seriously and doesn’t want to take shortcuts on health.

Berg said the district learns about positive cases from the health department and teachers or parents of students who have tested positive. He said the administration then works with a school-based team of principals, school nurses, counselors, secretaries and teachers to contact trace and issue quarantine notifications for the close contacts.

“If they were in school during a contagious period, then our schools look at that period,” Berg said.

The contagious period is considered to be two days before the individual started showing symptoms.

Rebecca Spear, a district nurse, said school officials follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when determining close contacts. Someone who has come within 6 feet of an infected person for cumulative 15 minutes or more is considered a close contact, according to the CDC.

“We go back to what was happening that day in that class and determine how many people fell into that 6-feet and 15-minute category,” she said.

Contact tracing can differ depending on the school level, particularly between elementary schools and the upper grades. Since elementary schools have transitioned out of the blended model, classes are at capacity without the ability to socially distance.

Berg said when there is a positive case in those settings, the district is “more inclined to identify all of those students and a teacher as a close contact.”

In the middle and high schools — which are still in the blended model — the contact tracing teams can rely more on seating charts. Berg said in those situations it’s important to talk with the teachers to find out if students were moving around and not in a particular seat, like in a science lab, for example.

“Whenever we have positive cases in the schools and staff or teachers have to quarantine, we have to evaluate how that impacts the operation of the schools,” he said.

On Monday and Tuesday, the district averaged 53 adult staff and 390 students in quarantine, according to its daily quarantine and isolation tracker.

Since teachers tend to teach more than one class of students in middle and high schools, the impact of a positive case or a quarantined teacher can have a larger impact.

Berg pointed to Chief Joseph Middle School and remote learning for its eighth grade classes as an example. When a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, several other staff members were identified as close contacts and told to quarantine. District and school administrators opted to move the entire eighth grade to 100% online learning.

As middle schools prepare to move to five days of in-person learning on Nov. 23 and social distancing in the classes becomes impossible, it’s likely the number of close contacts from positive cases will increase.

“In the blended model we could identify two or three kids, but now that we’ve gone to full kids in the classes, we can’t really determine all of the close contacts because they’re so close together,” Spear said. “Now we’re seeing all 20 kids are close contacts.”

Contact tracing in the last week has been further complicated by an increase in test result notifications, ultimately delaying when the schools can start contact tracing and send out quarantine notifications.

In the last two weeks, the turnaround times on test results went from an average of 48 hours to anywhere from three to 12 days, Spear said.

For example, Spear said if the district receives a positive notification it becomes harder to look back seven days and then two days before the individual started showing symptoms to find close contacts.

“It makes it harder, as that time frame gets extended to identify those close contacts,” she said.

When an individual is identified as a close contact, the district coordinates with the county health department to send out a quarantine notification, based on the last-known exposure date. Close contacts are required to be out of school and quarantining for 14 days after that exposure date, Berg said.

Spear and Berg encouraged anyone feeling sick to stay home, and for parents to notify their students’ school if they have symptoms or are waiting on test results.

“I know the sniffles can seem like a cold, but it’s just really important for us that they stay home,” Berg said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.