First day of school

Hal Wheeler puts a mask on his son, Henry, at Jackson Elementary School before sending him inside for the first day of Kindergarten. Schools started for the fall county-wide Tuesday, with modified schedules and a mixture of virtual and in-person learning as part of the district’s plan to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. 

Based on a low prevalence of transmission of COVID-19 in schools around the state, the Wyoming Department of Health has changed its guidelines for contact tracing in educational settings.

“We no longer recommend quarantine if a potential school exposure occurs while both the infectious individual and the close contacts are wearing face coverings,” State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said at a Thursday press briefing.

In the state’s original guidance for school exposures, any close contact of an infectious person (defined as within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes in school district letters sent to parents) had to quarantine for 14 days following the last exposure to the case. That often resulted in entire classes having to head home for two weeks when cases were found in schools.

In Teton County School District No. 1, classes at several elementary schools met that fate, with cases in either students or teachers necessitating a switch to virtual education.

The new guidance may limit the number of times that happens going forward.

“In terms of a positive individual being identified within the school, and then that classroom having to quarantine, I think that goes away,” said Charlotte Reynolds, the district’s communications director.

For school exposures, the Teton County Health Department conducts the contact tracing and the school district then notifies parents, since it already has communication channels set up with families.

It is unclear how the updated guidelines will change the work local contact tracers are doing.

Rachael Wheeler, the public health response coordinator, said it could conceivably mean they only have to call the teacher when a case is identified to determine whether masks were worn, but when reached Friday she couldn’t say for sure that would be the case.

“We’re not sure if we’ll still have to potentially notify all the parents about self-monitoring their student in certain situations,” she said. “We just haven’t worked through what that’s going to look like.”

The change in guidance is in response to information gathered over the past month in which schools have been open. About 100 cases have been reported as exposure in schools, Harrist said, but officials have found that if both parties — the infectious person and the contact — are wearing face coverings, the likelihood of transmission is low.

That’s not to say exposure in schools doesn’t happen. According to the Teton Valley News, in Idaho, Teton School District 401 on the western side of the Tetons reported eight new cases in its schools between Monday and Thursday.

The new guidance does, however, signify that masks have been effective so far in Wyoming.

“Transmission has occurred in school settings where face coverings are not being worn, most notably in connection with school athletics,” Harrist said Thursday.

Harrist encouraged continued social distancing as much as possible, calling it “our most effective tool.” However, state public health orders require that masks be worn by educators and pupils whenever 6 feet of social distancing can’t be maintained.

Even if close contacts of a case are told they don’t need to quarantine because face coverings were worn, the revised guidance says they need to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and then either be tested or isolate for 10 days following the onset of symptoms. Any interaction with an infectious person in which only one person is wearing a mask means the close contacts must quarantine.

At Thursday’s press conference, Harrist applauded the work of school officials so far this year.

“No schools have yet had to close because of COVID-19,” she said, “because school administrators, staff, parents and students are working together to help ensure safety.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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