So, Your Child Has Been Exposed To COVID-19 At School — Now What?
With classes back in session, more and more parents are getting word that their child has been exposed to COVID-19 at school. 277 cases have been reported in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools as of Monday, and the numbers keep rising each week. The school district says it’s trying its best to communicate with parents and keep kids safe, but some families say they’re still confused about how to handle the situation.
WFDD's April Laissle spoke to parents, school district officials, and health care providers about navigating the process.
How are parents being notified that their kid has been exposed to the virus?
According to WS/FCS, you’ll receive a letter telling you your child has had close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. Close contact, as defined by the state health department, means being physically exposed within six feet of a positive case for 15 minutes or longer.
The letter will tell you whether or not they advise you to keep your child home from school, but it won't tell you who in their class tested positive for the virus. In some cases, it also won't tell you when exactly your child was last exposed.
After you get the letter, the district says you should receive a call from a contact tracer. This ideally will happen shortly afterward, but there may be some delays because of the influx in positive cases. Some parents are reporting that they’re not getting those calls until a week later, if at all.
What should parents do after they receive that letter?
Ideally, they should get their children tested, as long as it has been 3-5 days since the date of exposure. This might be easier said than done – it can be difficult to pinpoint when an exposure actually occurred. As I mentioned earlier, in some cases the district doesn’t tell you exactly when your child was exposed in that notification letter. If you have any questions about this, the district is advising you to call your school’s COVID coordinator.
We’re also getting reports that appointments for testing are scarce. You can always use the Find My Testing Place feature of the state health department’s website. There you can type in your zip code and available testing centers will pop up.
How does the school district figure out who has been exposed?
Once a positive case has been reported to the school’s COVID coordinator, the district’s contact tracers collect information about the situation by talking to the sick child, their parents, and their teachers. They ask a series of questions to better determine where, when, and how any exposures may have occurred. Then they decide whether certain students should be excluded from class – which can be a tricky call.
Even if contact tracers determine your child’s interactions with a COVID positive person meet the state’s definition of close contact, they may still advise you to keep sending your kid to school. That’s because in July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added an exception to that rule. They now say students don’t need to quarantine if the exposure happened when both students were masked.
This exception has forced some parents to make tough decisions. I talked to Sarah Green, who is a parent of children in the district and the manager of the WSFCS Community for Safe Schools Facebook group.
She says some parents are getting conflicting advice from their doctors after they get those close contact letters telling them not to keep their children home.
“Then what happens is you might be like, 'Okay, well, maybe I should call my pediatrician.' And your pediatrician is likely to tell you like, 'No, no, you do need to keep your kid home from school until you have them tested," says Green. "And your pediatrician will tell you, you shouldn't get tested until like, five days after exposure.”
Again, because in some cases the district doesn't provide you with a date of exposure, it can be really tough to figure out when you should get your child tested.
But if you send your child back and it turns out they do have COVID, aren’t you putting their classmates at risk?
I talked to Cone Health pediatrician Dr. Suresh Nagappan about this, and he says yes it’s a risk to send your child back to school when you know they’ve been exposed to COVID, even if they were wearing a mask. But he says he doesn’t think that risk outweighs the benefits of your child staying in the classroom.
“I think this is one situation where I agree with what the CDC says, which is that we are prioritizing students staying in school," said Nagappan. "And so knowing that nothing is zero risk, knowing that there's a small risk of two masked people within three feet or six feet, that they might spread to each other. That risk is okay, given the upside, which is kids getting an education and staying in school.”
He’s advising parents who are in this situation to watch out for symptoms and be cautious, but he also says not to panic. He says that although many children are now testing positive for COVID-19, most of them are still not having severe symptoms.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.