The Journal Gazette
 
 
Thursday, February 03, 2022 1:00 am

SACS plans to cease tracing, quarantine

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

The Southwest Allen County Schools board is challenging state rules for the second time this academic year – this time by ending contact tracing and the resulting quarantines.

The unanimous decision happened Tuesday after consulting with the district's attorneys, and it is no different than what districts in neighboring counties are doing, board President Brad Mills said in an interview Wednesday.

“What we're doing is not unprecedented,” he said, noting the change stems from SACS' desire to have students in school.

The 7,800-student district will on Feb. 16 discontinue universal contact tracing that requires schools to investigate each COVID-19 case. Staff will no longer notify families whose student might have had a close contact with the virus through classroom or extracurricular settings.

The Indiana Department of Education addressed contact tracing in its weekly newsletter dated Jan. 21. It said the state health department seeks to reduce the burden for schools with mask requirements, which SACS does not have.

“Schools should continue to notify parents of a positive case in the classroom and reinforce mitigation strategies at school and home,” the newsletter said.

Those mandating masks no longer need to report close contact information to the Indiana Department of Health, the newsletter said, but “schools that do not have a mask requirement in place” – like SACS – “must continue to report both positive cases and close contacts, as well as all associated fields, to the IDOH K-12 portal.”

These guidelines and others addressing quarantines are summarized for schools in health department documents dated Jan. 28.

Fort Wayne Community Schools is the only Allen County district with a mask mandate. Superintendent Mark Daniel said in a Facebook Live update Tuesday there are no immediate plans to change that.

“There are protocols that if we are fully masked, it allows us to do things that are less restrictive,” Daniel said, specifically noting fewer quarantine days and less contact tracing. “As long as we have these, if you will, measures in place that again support our students being in school a greater number of days, as well as our staff and our teachers, we will continue with where we are today.”

When asked whether SACS is opening itself to liability issues by ending contact tracing, Mills reiterated the discussion with legal counsel.

“I'm not a lawyer,” Mills said, “but I believe we're going to be in a good spot for this.”

In an email to families Wednesday, SACS justified the decision with this quote it attributed to the Indiana Department of Health: “While universal case investigation and contact tracing during the initial phase of the pandemic was justified, as the phases of the pandemic evolve, public health experts agree this degree of response is no longer optimal.”

A health department spokeswoman told The Journal Gazette the comment was drawn not from the state agency but from a statement by a coalition of national health organizations – the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Big Cities Health Coalition and the Association of Public Health Laboratories. 

SACS will continue reporting all COVID-19 cases to the state health department and the Allen County Department of Health daily, the email to parents said. It also reminded families what to do if their child tests positive.

Dr. Matthew Sutter, the Allen County health commissioner, said there is a national conversation about how and when society transitions to an endemic approach to COVID-19, and he suspects that discussion is happening within the state health department.

“However, despite our case counts decreasing, every county in the state is in red,” Sutter said in a statement Wednesday. “Therefore, we continue to encourage Southwest Allen County Schools and all of our local schools and school districts to continue to follow the state of Indiana's protocols, including contact tracing and quarantine, until such time as the state's protocols are changed.”

The number of COVID-19 cases in Allen County has jumped from 76,623 on Jan. 1 to 101,464 as of Wednesday, with the number of new daily cases peaking at 1,361 on Jan. 19.

Meanwhile, the total number of SACS student cases this academic year increased by more than 650 in January. According to the state's weekly school virus dashboard update Monday, the district had 1,095 cases, up from 418 reported Jan. 3.

SACS is waiting two weeks to change its contact tracing procedures to give the recent spike time to ebb, Mills said.

The five board members voted on the matter during an agenda item labeled as a report on contact tracing and the quarantining process, surprising at least one parent in attendance.

Shawn McCarthy told The Journal Gazette after the meeting that he was furious to the point that his hands were shaking as he addressed the board during public comment.

“The example you are setting for our kids – the lesson you are teaching our kids – is that inconvenient facts should be ignored, and inconvenient rules should be broken, and that is not the message this school board should be sending,” McCarthy told the board.

SACS last disregarded state COVID-19 rules in September, when the board voted 4-1 to create less stringent quarantine rules while maintaining a mask-optional policy.

The district reversed that policy days later, telling families the board's action didn't meet state guidelines.

asloboda@jg.net


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