Contact tracing put on hold, COVID-19 isolation period cut

Changes to take place immediately amid overwhelming surge of COVID-19 cases


Hannah Woods

A few days after returning for second semester, school nurse Carol Casteel goes through N95 masks, which more students and faculty have begun wearing since returning from winter break when the spread of COVID-19 spiked.

By Arien Roman Rojas, Co-Editor in Chief of The Budget

As positive COVID-19 cases empty school buildings of students and staff, USD 497 announced changes to both isolation periods and contact-tracing practices.

USD 497 will pause contact tracing for COVID-19 after a change suggested by state health and school officials on Monday amid an ongoing surge in positive cases. The district also announced it would now reduce the isolation period for students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 to as few as five days in some circumstances.

Lawrence Public Schools has consistently based its COVID-19 procedures on the guidance of federal, state, and local public health officials,” Julie Boyle, executive director of communications for USD 497 said. “As a result, the district has been a community leader in providing layered mitigation strategies to reduce the spread of the virus.” 

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas State Department of Education issued guidance on Monday suggesting to cease contact tracing for a temporary 30-day period.

“During this 30-day period, our schools will not conduct contact tracing to identify students at high risk of exposure to the virus,” Boyle said in an email to families. “The district encourages school families to continue to use the COVID-19 Daily Assessment to monitor your children for symptoms and keep them at home when they show signs of illness. School health office staff will only offer COVID-19 testing to staff and students who become symptomatic while at school.”

The decision comes because of the overwhelming rise in cases this winter due to the highly-contagious Omicron variant. Several school districts called off classes in the past two weeks because they couldn’t fill staff absences as schools face a shortage of subs as well as higher numbers of teachers missing classes with illnesses. As of Tuesday, Lawrence High School had 23.3% of students absent — a figure that had declined slightly from late last week, according to the attendance office.

“It’s just because the state was getting so many [cases], the health department here was getting so many, the schools, it’s just that everywhere, they couldn’t keep up with it,” said LHS nurse Carol Casteel, who has been on the front lines of contact tracing at LHS.

Health officials like Casteel are under intense pressure because of the record-setting increase of cases and because the responsibility of finding those who may be at risk of infection falls on them. The holidays only added to the pressure.

“Last week was so busy with more cases between sports and activities,” Casteel said. “And just break. People came back from break. Household cases and friends. It’s just because it spreads so much easier now.”

Contact tracing can be time-consuming and hard work.

If you look out in the halls, you rarely see the admin, but since they stopped tracing it, I’ve seen them around already,” history teacher Nathan Cooper said. “I think it’s just a way to relieve stress off of administrators because contact tracing is literally all they have been doing.”

Although contact tracing will cease for athletes and students, schools will continue to test staff members and students who are symptomatic.

School health office staff will only test staff and students who become symptomatic while at school,” Boyle said. “This will also assist with statewide testing supply shortages.”

In another significant change, students and staff members who test positive are now required to isolate for as few as five days if they test negative for COVID-19 through an antigen or PCR test obtained from an area testing center. They would also have to be fever-free for 24 hours with improving symptoms in order to return to school on day six. If they tested positive on day six, they would be required to isolate the full, 10-day period. Students unable to wear masks are also required to isolate 10 days if they test positive for COVID-19.

Even with contact tracing stopping, Lawrence High School’s health office still has other resources for combating COVID-19, including COVID tests and KN-95 masks.

We’re trying to do the rapid tests for teachers and maybe students that are ill with a couple of symptoms and we also have the PCR’s,” Casteel said. “We have these KN-95 masks in the health office. Students can use them, teachers, staff, and some more people have been using them.”

Previously Lawrence High School would only do contact tracing if they were informed about a confirmed positive case and for maskless extra-curricular activities like sports and band. And although contact tracing is paused the district will continue to post reported cases from staff and students in the district on their website.

USD 497, as well as Casteel, recommends that people take responsibility for the health and safety of  themselves and their peers. They say students should stay home and get tested if they have symptoms, wear masks correctly, as well as get their booster shots if eligible. 

During these difficult times Casteel says the top goal is, “To keep teachers and staff working. All staff, custodians, the paras, the cafeteria workers, the front offices, student services, everywhere.”

Finn Lotton-Barker and Jack Ritter contributed to this report.