As schools begin returning to face-to-face instruction, St. Louis County has assembled a team of public health officials to work with schools, colleges and universities across the county, helping them develop COVID-19-preparation plans and respond to situations as they arise.
For the past several weeks, the county’s education liaisons have facilitated sessions that all the schools in the county are invited to join, said Aubrie Hoover, senior public health educator and liaison for K-12 schools in northern St. Louis County. The session topics have ranged from data and infection control to contact tracing and what happens if someone tests positive.
“We right now are doing weekly communication to them usually every Friday,” Hoover said. “And then we're reaching out usually another time earlier in the week, just kind of asking questions maybe about their safety plan, or if there's anything that we can assist them with if they have any questions or needs from us.”
With the bulk of the COVID-19 cases in the county recorded in the Duluth area, Sarah Miller, a public health nurse and liaison for southern St. Louis County K-12 schools, has been busy following up with the schools on new cases.
The county has also been working on educating students about precautions and best practices during these times. St. Louis County is working on implementing social media education around the importance of masks and distancing, Miller said.
“We’re trying to get (kids and young adults) to really understand what’s behind the need for distancing and the mask,” Miller said. “But sometimes it’s really hard for them to take all that in because they just want to be with their peers.”
St. Louis County has recently seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in adults ages 20-24 with 124 positive cases since June 25, though county information shows those numbers currently plateauing. There has also been a spike in cases in teens ages 15-19 with 96 new cases since Aug. 2. Miller said educating these groups is important because of that uptick.
“We have had community spread with some of our 16-to-19-year-old category because they're a little more likely to swap spit and not listen to ‘keep your mask on and don't, you know, kiss and love on one another,’” Miller said.
The biggest thing students and young adults can do to protect others, Hoover said, is to stay home when they are not feeling well, whether they think it’s something as simple as allergies or not.
“A lot of schools are going to have their parents on the front lines, checking their students before they go to school, so it’s important to stay home if you’re feeling sick,” Hoover said, adding the same goes for college students.
If someone within a school environment, including students, employees or their family members, tests positive for COVID-19, they are asked to notify the school immediately. The school is then required to report the case to the Minnesota Department of Health under the state’s Communicable Disease Reporting Rule.
That said, schools are not required to publicly report cases — that’s up to each school to decide. Schools also have to take student and employee privacy into consideration when deciding to release the number of positive cases.
“I think in some of the smaller schools, particularly up north, if they have a case, announcing it could identify that person,” Miller said. “So I think some schools are choosing not to let a whole lot be known just because of the size of the school and the area.”
However, people who are at risk for exposure are required to be notified. To help notify people, the Department of Health is working on creating specific contact-tracing teams for education institutions. Whether a school building or whole class would have to switch to distance learning or online class would be determined on a variety of factors.
Schools are being asked to follow the Department of Health’s “decision tree” when determining who should isolate or quarantine. The current tree isn’t very detailed, but Miller said it’s in the process of being updated with more information.
Three weeks ago, Jenna Davis started as the liaison for all colleges and universities in St. Louis County and has been sending out a weekly newsletter.
"Each college and university has different point people on these COVID teams," Davis said. "It's kind of just being available to them if they want me to join their staff meetings or talk one-on-one."
Each K-12 school district was required by the Minnesota Department of Education to come up with a safe learning plan. In that plan, the districts were required to identify plans for three different learning models — in person, distance learning and hybrid — cleaning protocols and how the district would handle a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.
Hoover said each school’s plan varies depending on the logistics of that district’s learning plan and their building makeup.
“I can tell you that the schools have taken such great care and thought into their plans,” Hoover said. “You can genuinely tell that they first and foremost are here to keep their students and staff safe.”
Once the Department of Health is notified of a positive case within a school, with the help of the school’s nurse, contact tracers will notify people who may have been exposed to that student or employee.
The county would also work with the school district if there was a positive case, Hoover said. They learned that the individual who was positive for COVID-19 came in close contact with 49 or less people, those individuals would be personally informed and directed to their health care provider for testing, if they so choose. If a positive individual came in close contact with 50 or more individuals, then the county would work closely with the Department of Health’s regional team and the district to create a testing event.
“The hope is with all the precautions that the schools and staff are taking that we won’t need a lot of testing events to take place,” Hoover said.
Most school districts have their safe learning plan posted on their websites for the public to view. The plans also have to be submitted to the Department of Education when completed.