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Dept. of Health school contact tracing raises questions, concern as COVID-19 cases uptick at another Duval County school

A letter from the Duval County Department of Health on Wednesday said Her son was exposed to someone with COVID-19 and needed to quarantine for 14 days.
Credit: Bruce Lipsky, Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — This past Thursday, Catie Kuhn saw that she missed multiple calls from her son's school, Paxon School for Advanced Studies. She needed to pick her son up right away. He had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 — 13 days ago.

A letter from the Duval County Department of Health dated Wednesday, Oct. 21, said Kuhn's son was exposed to someone with COVID-19 and needed to quarantine for 14 days. Then, it says his last day of quarantine is Friday, Oct. 23, and that he can return to school on Oct. 24 (which is a Saturday) if no symptoms develop.

Kuhn was left perplexed, calling her situation "quarantine purgatory." She thought maybe the quarantine end date was a typo. But the Department of Health isn't saying that. And they haven't returned Kuhn's calls. 

"Seeing the letter left me confused, shocked and disappointed," she said. "Quarantine period ends one day after we were notified."

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Catie Kuhn, whose son attends Paxon School for Advanced Studies, holds a letter she received on what would be the second-to-last day of his ordered quarantine period. It's unclear if the dates are inaccurate or the Duval County Department of Health was 13 days late in notifying Kuhn. The letter is dated Oct. 21. Kuhn's son's name has been blurred for privacy.

Kuhn reached out to the Duval County Department of Health on Thursday morning to see if either the dates are incorrect or if not, why the letter was so late. By the day's end — the day her son's quarantine started and one day before it supposedly is ending — she still hadn't received guidance. 

The Times-Union also reached out to the local health department that day. A spokeswoman would not directly say if the dates are accurate or explain, if they are accurate, why it took so long to notify families. 

"Although we cannot provide details on specific cases, we can do our best to clear up the confusion," Samantha Epstein said. "The quarantine period is for 14 days. The last day of quarantine is determined by the last day of contact with the positive case. In order to protect the integrity of our investigation and the identity of the positive case, we do not publish the date of last contact in the letter." 

Epstein added that "If any parents or students are uncertain of the process, we encourage them to call our dedicated COVID-19 line at (904) 253-1850. We are happy to answer any questions they may have." 

But Kuhn was still waiting to hear back from the health department herself. And she says the silence is telling. 

"It ticks me off and makes me feel the response is more about their image since they’ve gotten back to [the Times-Union] but haven’t bothered to return my call regarding it from hours before," she said. 

Kuhn said she doesn't know what the health department is accomplishing with these potentially late notices. 

"In order to accurately contact trace, I would believe time is of the essence," she said. "If someone is finding out that they were exposed, 13 days after exposure, it leaves so many people vulnerable who could have also been exposed and I would believe it sets up more children for being at risk in the school because those initially exposed haven’t adequately isolated."

Cases Increasing

This is just one of dozens of instances where the Duval County Department of Health's contact tracing and quarantine guidance has caused confusion. And that confusion is only growing as case numbers increase across the school district.

Between Saturday, Oct. 16, and Thursday, Oct. 22, of this past school week, the district reported 62 new cases among students and staff that impacted the community. Friday's numbers were not available as of publication time. 

The week before, the school district reported 60 cases, which included the bulk of Duncan Fletcher High School's outbreak. This week's numbers would have included a cluster of cases that prompted the closure of Douglas Anderson High School, but the school district has since announced that new COVID-19 cases have tapered. 

Currently, the entire Fletcher High School student body is under quarantine recommendations. 

Sandalwood High School also had a spike in cases this week with the school district listing 11 cumulative cases on campus, at least seven of which were reported this week. But Duval County Public Schools officials don't expect the campus to need to close. 

At Paxon, the school district currently reports two cases impacting the school. But an email from Principal Royce Turner sent to parents Friday said "three additional cases" are under investigation by the health department. Until cases are confirmed and contact tracing is conducted, those cases don't appear on the school district's self-reported dashboard. 

Duval County Public Schools officials have acknowledged that contact tracing in schools is a tricky situation. It's why, they say, they "preventatively" closed Fletcher High School and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts despite the Department of Health's number of confirmed COVID-19 cases remaining low until days later. 

The school district doesn't perform contact tracing itself. The testing, tracing and quarantine orders are performed through a partnership between the school district and the local and state Department of Health offices. 

Since school started on Aug. 20 and ended hybrid learning on Sept. 28, parents, students and faculty have voiced frustration with inconsistent contact tracing following exposure to the coronavirus. 

Former School Board candidate and current teacher and education advocate Chris Guerrieri has been vocal about what he says are Department of Health shortcomings. 

He said when a colleague of his tested positive for COVID-19, students of his that had been in their classroom were not ordered to quarantine. 

"Nothing has been required of my [students] who were in the infected room multiple times, nor the majority of the children who worked with the infected staff member," he said. "This is not an isolated incident either. You can see all over social media how teachers and students are out [sick] and it’s not being reported and unless something happens during school hours, contact tracing is kept to a minimum." 

Guerrieri is calling the school contact tracing practices "reckless." 

On private social media groups, educators have discussed one half of a married teacher couple being told to quarantine while the other continues to work and instances were siblings of someone in a separate school quarantining continue to go to school. 

Things get messier in situations where standardized testing is taking place, prompting virtual students to visit schools in-person so a proctor can monitor. 

At Paxon, where Kuhn's son attends, virtual students just took part in PSAT testing. It's unclear if factors like that are being considered when the health department conducts contact tracing. 

'The school can't act if they don't know of a problem'

Kuhn said she doesn't blame Paxon or the school district for the communication gap.

"In my opinion, the only different thing that could have been done would be on the health department's end," she said. "If they are the ones reporting this info to school, the onus of responsibility to do it in a timely manner is on them. The school can’t act if they don’t know of a problem."

Previous partnerships with the school district and health department have been rocky. When the Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed an executive order for schools to resume in-person learning, it contained a contingency that said school districts could opt out if they developed a plan with their local department of health. But public records and interviews with school officials later revealed that health departments were advised not to cooperate. 

When asked about the gap between confirmed COVID-19 cases at schools and contact tracing and quarantine orders, the school district said the process is largely out of its hands. 

"Contact tracing and epidemiological studies are the purview of the Department of Health," district spokeswoman Sonya Duke-Bolden said. "We support the process by informing the department as soon as someone reports to us that they are positive … [but] the process, the dates and the directions are all driven by the Department of Health." 

Duke-Bolden added that the school district supplies the department with seating charts and "other documentation they may request" and with communicating the need to quarantine to people the department deems eligible. 

Regarding Kuhn's situation at Paxon, the district said it couldn't go into details. "It is important to note that — while we can’t address this specific case — quarantine is based on the date of last contact," Duke-Bolden said. "For example, a student who has been out of school for several days before testing positive could yield a different date scenario than a student who tests positive the day he leaves school." 

In-person learning is expected to resume this coming week for both of the district's closed schools. 

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