CORONAVIRUS

COVID-19 seldom spread in Iowa classrooms - it's happening in community, health officials say

Eastern Iowa schools forced to go virtual in November because of community surges

Head custodian Effie Redig helps a young student with her face visor as students arrive during the first day of in-perso
Head custodian Effie Redig helps a young student with her face visor as students arrive during the first day of in-person classes at Shimek Elementary School, 1400 Grissel Place, in Iowa City, Iowa, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. The school has an enrollment of about 205 students. The school district has been in online-only learning for the past three weeks and started the hybrid learning model Monday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In November, the College Community School District saw a 300 percent increase in the number of students and staff testing positive for the coronavirus or in quarantine from exposure to it.

Although public health officials in Linn and Johnson counties say they are not identifying significant spread of COVID-19 between students and school staff, it’s difficult to keep schools shielded from surges in the community.

Colleen Elliott, College Community supervisor of health services, said the district is continuing to track positive cases and students and staff in quarantine while the district is in 100 percent virtual-only learning.

The district started virtual instruction Nov. 16 after receiving a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education, and is planning to return to on-site instruction Dec. 14.

From Aug. 21 to Oct. 29, College Community had 354 students and staff test positive or who were in quarantine from exposure to COVID-19.

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 30, the district recorded about 1,000 new entries for positive COVID-19 cases or quarantines.

“That was the surge our entire community experienced, and we worked really hard to keep up with that, but it was intense,” Elliott said.

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Linn County Public Health’s case investigation and contact tracing team is not identifying a significant spread between students and staff, said Kaitlin Emrich, assessment and health promotion supervisor.

In Johnson County, transmission of COVID-19 is not happening in classrooms “at a pronounced rate,” said Sam Jarvis, community health manager.

“Prevention measures implemented in the classroom are making a difference to reduce transmission,” Emrich said in an email, citing masks and physical distancing as especially important measures.

“The same prevention measures that are shown to work in the school setting are effective in other settings as well, and we encourage everyone to actively participate in preventing the spread of COVID-19 within our community,” Emrich said.

“Can it occur? Certainly, but excluding those who are ill, excluding those who are in quarantine, physically distancing, wearing a mask correctly and good hand hygiene put in place are all measures that lower risk,” Jarvis said.

Eastern Iowa has seen a decline in new daily COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District, which was eligible for virtual learning until Dec. 14, started back in in-person Monday.

Although there wasn’t the expected surge in coronavirus cases after Thanksgiving, Elliott has her sights set on the next round of holidays. She expects a surge in COVID-19 cases after Christmas and New Year’s.

“We haven’t had any flu yet, so there’s that, too, which could be hard to differentiate because the symptoms are so similar,” she said.

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The Iowa City Community School District is also continuing to track data while students are in virtual learning.

District Communications Director Kristin Pedersen said school nurses are still conducting contact tracing and consulting on COVID-19-related questions from families, students and staff.

As positive COVID-19 cases are reported to the school, nurses make contact with the individual and follow contact tracing protocols just like they are followed with on-site learning.

“We feel that our safety mitigation efforts help slow the spread within our schools as well as through contact tracing process, which is followed to quarantine any individuals determined to have close contact with a positive individual,” she said in an email.

Leading up to the move to 100 percent virtual learning on Nov. 16, the number of positive cases in Iowa City schools was beginning to overwhelm the district’s health services team, Pederson said.

More staff have been training to assist school nurses in the contact tracing process when students return to hybrid learning Monday.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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