A new role for school staff: COVID contact tracers

‘Once you find out someone has tested positive, the clock starts’

Since San Francisco’s public schools fully reopened, the district has reported 215 COVID cases out of 62,800 staff and students. Behind many of these cases is an administrator-turned-contact tracer racing against time to prevent an outbreak.

Staff at San Francisco Unified School District campuses say they are overwhelmed investigating cases on top of operating schools and are not trained public health experts. Depending on the school, it can take up to six hours to look into each case. Often times, staff members work all weekend.

“Once you find out someone has tested positive or has symptoms, the clock starts,” said Michael Essien, president of the United Administrators of San Francisco and principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School. “The work we were doing previously, that is now secondary to this contact tracing. We can’t manage the site, we can’t be instructional leaders, we can’t get inside the classrooms.”

UASF and other unions are calling The City to take over contact tracing so school staff can get back to focusing on students. At a rally last week, they also called for universal testing, N95 masks and air purifiers.

San Francisco Department of Public Health guidelines, in line with state and federal guidelines, has schools identify close contacts when someone gets sick: being within six feet of someone who tests positive for at least 15 minutes over the course of a day. Close contacts must quarantine unless they are fully vaccinated and do not have symptoms.

The school’s site administrator serves as the single point of contact for staff, students and family questions, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said. The administrator is also the key contact for the central office and gathers information to provide to DPH and its schools response team with information daily.

In practice, that means administrators must interview dozens of teachers and students to see who the people in question sat with at lunch, who they may have stopped to talk to in the hallway and where in the classroom they sat.

“We recognize these systems are an adjustment, and appreciate all that staff are doing to follow COVID protocols and keep schools safe,” Dudnick said. “The district is listening to the concerns of staff and will continue to explore ways to respond to the concerns.”

Of the 215 cases reported, 118 were at elementary schools, where children under 12 years old are not yet eligible for a vaccine. The Department of Public Health does not currently have a publicly available dashboard for COVID in all city schools but will post data by the end of this week, a spokesperson said.

DPH says its staff already does the contact tracing. In early August, the agency doubled its employees to 12 people to collect information about people who test positive on campus.

“The Schools Response Team works directly with the school to identify all potential close contacts, and the team’s case investigators and contact tracers work directly with the students/families involved,” the department said in a statement. As for universal testing, “In San Francisco over the past year, routine testing of students without symptoms or known COVID-19 exposures has not been helpful in detecting infections or preventing in school transmission, even through the winter surge.”

Essien, however, is unfamiliar with the team and hadn’t heard of any schools that worked with them. Long term, he said, something needs to be negotiated.

“It seems like we’re moving toward a new normal,” Essian said. “We can’t be prisoners of the moment. What’s happening now, it just can’t continue.”


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