Monroe County Community School Corporation contact tracers have not yet detected any spread of COVID-19 in its classrooms, MCCSC communications officer Kelby Turmail said.
According to the data compiled by the contact tracers, positive cases resulted mainly from attending social gatherings or being around family members outside of school, Turmail said.
The contact tracing team consists of about 10 registered nurses who cover the MCCSC contact tracing line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All students, whether in person or online, and school faculty and staff call the contact tracing line if they test positive for COVID-19. Then, the nurses identify close contacts within the school by looking at the whereabouts of the person 48 hours before they started showing symptoms and finding who was within six feet of the person for more than 15 minutes.
Related: [Read more COVID-19 coverage here]
Since the start of the spring semester, there has been an increase in COVID-19 positivity rates from 5.7% on Dec. 30 to 7.7% on Jan. 11, according to the data compiled on the MCCSC website.
There have been about 50 in-person students who have tested positive and about 60 online students, according to data posted by the MCCSC. Turmail said students who tested positive and were attending class in person are categorized as online students if they were not in a school building 48 hours prior to the onset of their symptoms because they immediately move to online learning.
Turmail said she believes this increase in cases is due to holiday celebrations.
In order to prevent the spread of the virus, Monroe County schools took precautions such as wearing masks, adding more shifts for custodians, wiping off desks in between activities, social distancing desks, splitting up bus routes so fewer kids are on each bus and having seating charts for busses and classrooms. The students and faculty have also been able to spread out in their respective buildings because of the number of students attending class online.
Schools are following a learning status phase system which, based on factors such as positivity rate, positive case per day and contact tracing speed, determines whether MCCSC schools are in phase green, yellow or red.
Phase yellow, — the phase MCCSC schools are in — means kindergarten through sixth grade classes are in person, while seventh through twelfth grades use a hybrid schedule, where the students only come to school every other day. An online option is also available during phase yellow.
MCCSC board member Jacinda Townsend Gides said she does not believe students should be in schools because the risks regarding COVID-19 are too dire. She said she knows the schools, teachers and administration are doing the best they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the nationwide increase in cases following the holidays made her think a spike may occur in the community and in the schools.
Townsend Gides said she would not be surprised if there has been spread in the classrooms that has gone undetected by the contact tracers.
“I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks they can conclusively know that,” she said. “We’re talking about groups of people in indoor spaces with no ventilation.”
Tyler Abel, a Bloomington High School North teacher, said the benefits of being in the classroom far outweigh the risks associated with COVID-19. Abel, who leads a community-based classroom for students with moderate to severe disabilities, said many of his students need a specific daily structure to complete their school work, and it’s difficult to provide that guidance in a completely online format.
His students can’t do all of their normal activities, such as travelling to downtown Bloomington for life skills training at restaurants and transportation services, he said. However, because the majority of his students are still in person, he has been able to adapt some of the lessons, such as grocery shopping, to an online format.
“Having the students in front of you, you’re able to problem solve a lot quicker, you’re able to help reinforce things when they’re doing it well quicker,” he said. “That’s hugely beneficial for any student.”
Penny Caudill, Bloomington Health Department health administrator, said people indoors are never completely safe from COVID-19, but that schools are doing the best they can to prevent spread among their students and staff. She said it’s important for students to be in classrooms not only because instruction is easier, but also provides food to kids who don’t have steady meals at home and a safe space for children experiencing abuse. MCCSC Board President Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer said a representative from Child Protective Services spoke at a board meeting last fall about how child abuse could go undetected if students are not showing up for school.
Caudill said while she knows that being in person does not make sense for every student, Monroe County wants to help keep schools open for those that want to attend in person, as long as it is safe.
“The goal is to always keep students and faculty and staff safe and healthy,” she said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Monroe County Community School Corporation.