By Bridget Manley, publisher
The potential for children ages 5-11 to be eligible for vaccinations by Halloween might give many parents hope for the pressure clamp of worry to release. But in the meantime, COVID positive case numbers are still climbing in Harrisonburg schools. Mitigation efforts are working well, according to school officials, but some students and staff are still getting sick.
When that happens, it starts a chain reaction in which the schools, relying on contact tracing, notify the families of potentially exposed students or those in close contact with someone who tested positive. But that process isn’t always perfect.
One Harrisonburg mother, whose child contracted COVID-19 in school this fall, is asking school officials to err more on the side of caution when it comes to issuing quarantines and clarifying the instructions and guidance to parents.
Adrienne Hooker, a mother of three children in Harrisonburg schools, received an email a few weeks into school that told her that her youngest child — who is 11 and, thus, not yet eligible for vaccination — could have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. But the message also said safety protocols had been followed, and there was no need for her son to be quarantine.
She found the school screener — the document the schools gave to parents to help them assess if a child is showing signs of COVID – and was puzzled.
“It was very confusing, because it was very much written towards adults,” Hooker said. “‘Are you vaccinated, are you not?’ And so I said, ‘well, my kid is not vaccinated.’ So it says you should be quarantining, but then the email flat out said: ‘you have been doing the mitigations, you have been masking, so please watch them, but you can go to school.’”
For school systems, the decision about who should quarantine is still murky. The CDC website offers a “decision tree” model instead of definitive answers for addressing who should quarantine and when.
Superintendent Michael Richards told The Citizen that an email goes out to families of students who have been in a class where a student or staff member tests positive, but contact tracing shows the student has not been exposed.
“The email is a courtesy, an extra step we instituted at the start of the school year to be completely transparent,” Richards said. “The email indicates that we have no reason to believe at that time that the student needs to quarantine. In cases where contact tracing has determined there was a close contact [exposure], then we call the parent and require that the student goes into quarantine.”
‘Should have trusted my gut’
Hooker, whose child was not displaying any symptoms, sent him back to school for two days. On the third day, he started exhibiting signs of COVID. Hooker kept him home and had him tested. A few days later the test came back positive.
Hooker said one of the biggest regrets was knowing that her son could have exposed other students and staff for two full school days before they knew.
“I should have just trusted my gut and stayed at home,” Hooker said.
Richards said when there is a positive case, staff at the school’s campus and/or the district’s central office, in consultation with the Virginia Department of Health as needed, contacts all of those who may have been in close contact with the person who tested positive.
“Through this investigation, they determine who was and who wasn’t a close contact (i.e. “exposed”) and who will and will not need to quarantine,” Richards said. “Communications with those who are determined to be close contacts are done in a personal way (normally a phone call) not via automated calls or emails.”
Richards said so far, this particular case is the only one of its kind that they know of in city schools.
“Contact tracing is not a perfect science, but it did not indicate that her son needed to be quarantined due to a close contact or “exposure” to the teacher. Was it a mistake? Not according to the CDC/VDH protocols we are following,” Richards said.
He defended the use of the email to give families a heads up about potential exposure risks, although he said this situation has prompted school staff to consider its messaging.
“Is it a mistake to send the courtesy emails due to the confusion caused in this case? At this time, we do not think so, though we do feel the need to further refine our communications. We have tried to be extra transparent, and we will continue to do so.”
Keeping a promise to make changes
As of Thursday, 147 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in city schools, according to the HCPS COVID-19 dashboard. Forty-two positive cases have been identified in the last two weeks. Another 194 students quarantined because of possible exposure in a district with about 6,300 students.
That number of positive cases is lower than Rockingham County Schools, which has had 335 positive COVID cases since the start of school and 110 more positive cases than two weeks ago. Rockingham County has about 11,600 students.
As more students test positive, more emails alerts go to families.
Hooker said she wants school officials to use her experience to improve the system. She said the school board has been transparent and proactive since the pandemic started, but she wants officials to require more students who have been exposed to quarantine.
“I would have wanted them to encourage quarantine for at least the first three days — symptomatic or asymptomatic,” Hooker said.
She also said she’d like to see the school district clarify the “screener” document to address what parents should do during the period in which a student might have been exposed but is pre-symptomatic. For instance, she said the document could suggest whom parents could contact to talk over their options.
“I wish when I clicked on that screener, I knew what the communication lines were for families,” Hooker said. “Think about this email: you’ve just told a family that there is a possible exposure. You said the “E” word. A lot of us are going to be in panic mode. …When I clicked on that screener, I would have loved to have seen that communication of what that exactly means.”
Richards said he understands her frustration, and school officials are responding to her concern that “parents may be confused by what counts as an ‘exposure’ in the quarantining protocols document and the way the courtesy letter may seem to imply that there has been an exposure.”
He said school staff will continue to improve those communications.
“We need to be more direct in the courtesy letter by stating that contact tracing has not revealed a need for your child to quarantine, however keep an eye out for symptoms, keep your child home if you feel the need to do so,” Richards said. “I think she is spot on with this concern, and I’ve been working with staff to clarify our communications to address this issue.”
Richards said he spoke with Hooker before last week’s board meeting and “promised her that we would review our communications” and make changes. Richards said he kept that promise.
“Sometimes it takes an experience like this for us — we who have been speaking this language for 18 months — to see the gaps in communication with parents,” he said. “We very fluidly use terms/phrases like ‘exposure’ and ‘close contact’ and may not realize that we have not connected all the dots for parents.”
‘We were almost there’
As her family prepared to return to school this fall, Hooker said she was impressed with measures city schools had taken to try to minimize exposure. She saw air purifiers, masking requirements and as much distance planning as schools could provide.
“We knew they were taking it seriously, but we also know there is no perfect system,” Hooker said.
But all the careful steps didn’t stop COVID from infecting her child, and it fills her with deep sadness and worry about long term effects that it may have.
“From day one, my spouse and I have always said, ‘we just want to protect our kids,’ because really, we have no idea what the long-term effects are,” Hooker said. “That was the biggest concern for us, is to make sure that our kids were healthy and that they wouldn’t have to deal with this. And that’s what kills me.”
And, with potential FDA approval of a vaccine for children 5-11 a month or so away, Hooker said she feels as if her family ran an 18-month-long marathon only to fall short just before the finish line.
“I think that’s what kills me, we were just waiting for the vaccine,” Hooker said. “And then, boom — like, we were almost there.”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.