‘Every parent needs to be prepared’: Linn Co. Public Health calls for families to add self-isolation plans to back-to-school list

Published: Aug. 6, 2020 at 12:22 AM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Along with their school supplies, books, and, this year, masks and hand sanitizer, Linn County Public Health is asking for families to add another item to their back-to-school lists: a plan for what to do if their children need to self-isolate.

“They should be expecting that at some point in time that they’re going to get a phone call, stating that their child has potentially be exposed to COVID-19 and will need to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days,” LCPH Clinical Branch Supervisor Heather Meador said. “I think it’s inevitable, and I think every parent needs to be prepared.”

Meador said that means having answers before the school year starts for questions like, who will stay at home with their children if they have to self-isolate, especially if they’re younger? How will they monitor their child’s symptoms to see if they change? What’s their plan to stay on track with schoolwork, so they don’t fall behind while they’re isolating?

But even as families answer those questions, there are still a lot of unknowns remaining about what back to school will look like this year.

Rita McCord, who normally works as a kindergarten teacher at Hiawatha Elementary School, said she’s waiting to hear what her role in the Cedar Rapids Community School District will be this fall. Families had to notify the district by Wednesday of how their children will be learning this year before the district is able to finalize its own plans.

McCord’s husband is vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, so their children are participating in remote learning, and she will be working from home as well.

“I’m not sure if I will get, as of this time on this day, if I will get to be a remote-learning teacher,” McCord said. “I don’t know a grade-level assignment. I don’t know anything.”

What Meador said they almost certainly know is that the start of the school year will also bring an increase in COVID infections as groups of students and teachers return to congregate, though ideally socially-distanced, settings.

“I would fully anticipate that at some point, somewhere in the state, there will be a school that will have to shut down because of an outbreak,” Meador said.

She doesn’t want that to happen in Linn County. To get ready, Linn County Public Health has brought in more staff for contact tracing, boosting their ranks from 22 people to 30, and the department will be conducting contact-tracing investigations seven days a week, as it did this spring.

Linn County Public Health is responsible for contact tracing throughout the county, including in both public and private schools. Those workers will try to stop the virus from spreading among the tens of thousands of students and teachers across more than 70 schools in the county.

Contact tracers reach out to anyone who has tested positive, so Meador said they need people’s participation to complete their investigations, a factor that stays the same when applied to schools.

“We’ll talk to them about, ‘Who were you around? Who were your close contacts?’ and then we’ll be reaching out to the school and working with the school to determine who would’ve been a contact, who needs to self-isolate for the next two weeks,” she said.

Meador said it’s impossible at this point to know exactly how the school year will play out — if students will be able to finish out the year in the classroom, if the state’s requirement for schools to hold in-person classes for at least half the year will be feasible, et cetera.

But based on what health experts know about the virus, Meador said they can pencil in some expectations, especially if virus activity ramps up.

“If we’re looking at widespread illness throughout schools, I would anticipate that there would become someone who becomes very, very sick and could require hospitalization,” Meador said.

She said public health departments and school districts are constantly communicating and collaborating, trying to make the best decisions based on what they know right now, but they also recognize that so much is unknown and could change.

“We are concerned that we’re going to see higher rates of absenteeism,” Meador said. “We’re also worried about, what will schools do if they have a number of teachers absent? How will they find subs?”

She advises everyone — whether they have a connection to their local schools or not — to take the same steps public health departments have been preaching for months to help the return to school be as safe as possible: washing hands frequently, wearing a face covering, social distancing, and staying home when sick.

“We’re trying to protect our community,” Meador said. “We’re trying to have a safe and healthy start to the school year, and we’re all a part of this together.”

McCord echoed the same all-in-this together sentiment, but she added that it can feel like teachers and students are part of an “experiment,” one that she believes school districts, including her own, are doing their best to figure out.

She said guidance at the state level, including the restrictions on virtual learning time, makes that experiment even more confusing, and she wishes districts would be afforded more time and resources to ensure their return is as safe as can be.

“I hope we don’t look back on this time and think, ‘Well, that was just flat-out preventable,” McCord said. “That’s really all we want, is to be able to look back and say, ‘We did everything we could. Our voices were loud. We did everything we could. We tried so hard to keep it as safe as possible.”

Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.

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