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Schools Serving as Contact Tracers Onerous But Sensible

November 17, 2020

Public schools are simultaneously criticized for and expected to take on responsibilities that lie outside of their mission, which is narrow in the eyes of some and expansive in the eyes of others. 

Earlier in my career I wrote op ed pieces for local newspapers lamenting “Mission Creep”. In my last assignment I wrote an op ed encouraging school boards and state legislatures to have an explicit debate on the issue of the mission of schools… with the notion that IF the public wanted schools to offer only only healthy meals, for example, that they be given the funding needed to do so. 

With the pandemic raging in Vermont and New Hampshire, the headline story in our local newspaper reads “Contact Tracing Falls to Schools“. Written by local reporter Nora Burr, the article describes how both states are encountering increases in the number of cases of COVID and a lack of resources to conduct the contact tracing, which is time intensive. 

When I read the headline I expected this post to talk about the unfair burden this places on public schools, and that IS a reality. But when I read Vermont Commissioner Dan French’s response I thought that MAYBE it makes sense on a meta-level to have schools take this burden on in a partnership with the State Health Department:

The new process is aimed at increasing the Health Department’s capacity to respond as case numbers continue to rise.

In addition, “Schools already have well-worked systems in place to communicate with families, and families are likely to be more responsive to these messages from the school than to messages from the Health Department via unrecognized phone numbers,” French wrote in his memo. “This process will provide families with information in writing from a trusted source.”

By tackling issue as part of state-wide initiative with the Health Department, Vermont schools are reinforcing their roles as honest brokers and trusted sources of information… and both of those qualities are in short supply. But taking this on is not easy for some school districts that are already stretched thin and the number of cases is inordinately high:

Brigid Neasen, superintendent of the Harwood Union school district in the Mad River Valley of Vermont, told VtDigger that her employees had to call nearly 40 people after learning of one positive case this week.

“This is generating great stress out in school communities, because, one, we’re not medically trained, and two, we do not have the staff and the capacity to do all of this calling when there is a case,” she said.

The staff ISN’T medically trained, but neither are the other contact tracers… and with teachers saturated with responsibilities due to teaching on line it makes no sense for them to tackle this… but schools DO have clerical, instructional assistants, and non-certified administrative staff who could be trained in these areas and it seems natural for counselors to take this on since they work closely with families and would be among the most trusted to get the kind of information contact tracers provide. 

As always, funding for new responsibilities would be appreciated… but in a pandemic it strikes me that job descriptions, roles, and responsibilities need to be fluid… and schools can emerge from this with a positive community perspective if they take contact tracing on. 



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