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To Quarantine or Not to Quarantine? The Right Contact Tracers Can Help

Coping with COVID-19 can be a nightmare for large organizations. This is especially true for schools, where social distancing is virtually impossible, younger students aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, and just about everybody in the building is a potential close contact.

So it’s no wonder that a single positive case can cause panic, paranoia, and a flood of questions among faculty, students, and parents. Who was it? Was my child exposed? Was I exposed? Why is my child being told to quarantine and yours isn’t?

Even a hint of COVID symptoms might force school administrators to overreact out of an abundance of caution. A cough here, a stomachache, headache, or allergy attack there, and suddenly an entire class might be sent home for two weeks. You can’t blame the schools—often they simply don’t have the time or resources to find out who the close contacts are.

And it’s not necessarily unwise to treat every symptom as a potential COVID case—as the saying goes, better safe than sorry.

Some school systems are taking no chances. According to a recent article in the Providence Journal, as many as hundreds of students in Rhode Island have been asked to quarantine and test for COVID after reporting even a single symptom. As a lobbyist for the Rhode Island School Superintendent Association put it: “They’re sending kids home left and right.”

It is understandable and commendable that school administrators are doing everything possible to protect students and staff. Balancing full on-site learning with complicated health and safety protocols is a daunting task, especially when dealing with a virus that affects different people in drastically different ways.

But sending too many people home, or the wrong people, can cause major havoc. Not only is it a disruption for teachers and students and a burden for parents of young children forced to make sudden childcare arrangements, but it’s also affecting schools’ day-to-day operations. Fearful administrators might opt to send home entire janitorial or cafeteria staffs, for example, rather than risk further exposure.

The CDC provides detailed guidelines for who needs to quarantine and who doesn’t, but even if school districts are fully aware of the policies and have procedures in place to match, they likely don’t have the time, resources, or staff to properly enforce them or thoroughly address each individual incident. It is easier to just assume the worst-case scenario every time and react accordingly, but the situations are usually much more nuanced than that.

Having an outside partner with the resources and expertise to understand such nuance can go a long way toward alleviating panic and disruption in schools while still prioritizing the safety of students and staff. PubSEG (Public Safety and Economic Growth) was established last year to be that partner.

PubSEG’s team of experienced contact tracers can quickly ascertain who needs to quarantine and who doesn’t need to quarantine, based on information obtained during a series of detailed, empathetic phone calls with staff, family members, friends, and other close contacts.

Just because a student tests positive on a Wednesday doesn’t mean everybody she shared a class with on Monday and Tuesday needs to quarantine. Factors such as vaccination status, mask use, timing of symptoms, and duration of exposure are all considered when determining who should be sent home.

The CDC’s guidelines for COVID-19 in schools address multiple scenarios, but a general rule is that only people who are not fully vaccinated and were close contacts with someone who tested positive need to quarantine. PubSEG’s tracers are adept at determining whether you’re a close contact or not.

Not everybody who is anywhere near a sick person needs to quarantine. One of PubSEG’s clients, a large K-12 school system, was sending entire classrooms home because they didn’t have time to ask who the close contacts were. PubSEG has helped them alleviate this issue.

“A lot of schools and universities, the challenge they’re having now is they’re fearful they’re sending too many kids home,” says Kerry Dougherty, PubSEG’s Head of Sales. “Anytime there’s exposure, they’re overcorrecting for the problem. They don’t have the resources to do a proper case investigation and determine who exactly is a close contact and who’s been exposed.”

Nobody wants to see COVID cases surge in schools, but at the same time, nobody wants to see students or staff sent home unnecessarily. It’s a juggling act for school officials to maintain that balance, but PubSEG’s mission is to help them achieve it, whether by supporting schools’ existing processes or implementing their own. PubSEG’s callers are trained to know exactly the right questions to ask and the right people to ask them to, and they’re experienced enough on the phone to handle even the most difficult conversations with patience, sincerity, and compassion.

Since PubSEG follows schools’ existing protocols, it does not necessarily reduce the number of students with symptoms being sent home initially. But PubSEG’s tracers can follow up to see how long the students need to be out. Maybe, it’s not as long as initially feared.

“A school might say, ‘If you’re sick at all, just go home.’ We might then get to talk to the mother and father and dig a little deeper,” Ms. Dougherty says. “We would ask things like, ‘What are the symptoms your child is having and when was the last time your child was tested’ and go through all these different scenarios and determine how long they actually have to stay out.”

PubSEG’s efforts are making a difference at colleges, universities, and K-12 school systems throughout the country. If you’re looking for assistance keeping your students and staff and safe while minimizing disruptions to your daily routines, give us a call. We welcome the opportunity to help.