Officials from Fairmont Schools, a private system in California’s Orange County, say they’ve seen COVID-19 cases but “zero” in-school transmission.
Their secret weapon? An app that relies on Bluetooth technology and students’ phones to track how the virus might spread within their high school or among staff across the system.
Fairmont is among 40 private school systems using the technology from Trace Innovations, which can figure out who spent a lot of time near a student who has reported an infection. Fairmont has run the technology at its high school seven times, including twice during the current academic year.
“We were able to run trace and identify who the students were with and have them quarantine,” said Kristen Jansen, Fairmont‘s director of education and COVID-19 coordinator, told The Washington Times. “Unlike other schools, we have had zero internal spread of the virus. We have not had a student infect other students.”
Schools are looking for any advantage they can get as they reopen their doors for full-time, in-person teaching even as the coronavirus sticks around. Some schools closed during the early crush in 2020 and reopened last year with a hybrid model that let some students learn remotely and some in the classroom, while others are reopening their doors for the first time since March of last year.
At times, it can feel like a massive experiment in whether America can coexist with the virus.
“There’s a lot of variation concerning mask-wearing, testing, quarantining and all of those things,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. “An experiment is done in an orderly fashion, so I’m not sure I can call it an experiment.”
The opening weeks have been helter-skelter. Schools from Alaska to Connecticut have been forced to close due to COVID-19 outbreaks; others are struggling to get enough substitute teachers.
Fairmont Schools, which has kept the virus in check, has certain advantages. It is a private institution that serves grades K-12 at five campuses, and it is relatively small, with a high school enrollment of 600. It deployed its Bluetooth technology at the high school and among 400 employees across all campuses.
Mammoth public districts are having a harder time. Montgomery County, the largest public school system in Maryland, reversed strict quarantine guidance after more than 1,700 of its 160,000 students were put into quarantine during the first two weeks of school.
Symptomatic students and their close contacts had been sent home immediately, prompting a backlash. Now, students who show COVID-19 symptoms will quickly receive a rapid test and only those who test positive and their close contacts will be sent home.
“Clearly, 2,000 students being quarantined in a week and entire grades of children being out of schools is a terrible outcome — something that we should do everything in our power to avoid,” Montgomery County Council member Andrew Friedson said at a meeting. “And it does seem that these new protocols that have been described today are a significant step in a better direction.”
Oregon’s second-largest high school will be closed this week due to COVID-19. Although the number of infections at Reynolds High School has been relatively small, “these cases have required large numbers of students to quarantine due to possible exposure in the last few days,” The Associated Press reported.
Fulton County Schools in Georgia shut down two middle schools and a high school in the Atlanta area last week because “based on a high volume of positive cases and direct contacts” and plan to resume Tuesday.
At least five Philadelphia schools have been forced to shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks three weeks into the school year.
Schools across the country are reporting another consequence of the pandemic — a lack of substitute teachers. Officials in a county district in Greenville, South Carolina, said district administrators were conscripted into classroom roles because they couldn’t tap the reserve of substitutes they used to rely on.
Some substitutes don’t want to come in anymore, even as regular teachers are forced to quarantine or stay home because they feel a bit iffy.
A lot of substitutes are older, retired teachers who were glad to come out before but “don’t want to get out during COVID,” district spokesman Tim Waller told WYFF-4 television. “They might have compromised immune systems or other health issues. They may be taking care of an elderly parent.”
He said regular teachers are absent because they “might be isolating due to COVID or in quarantine because of COVID, or they just have a common cold or family situation.”
Pfizer on Monday said its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and generated a “robust” antibody response in children aged 5 to 11, a sign that could lead to emergency approval of the shots for elementary schoolchildren by Halloween or mid-November.
The drugmaker said its data were from a study of 2,200 children who received two doses, three weeks apart. Each dose contained about 10 micrograms, or about a third of the dosage for teens and adults. Pfizer said it will submit its data to the Food and Drug Administration as soon as possible.
As it stands, students younger than 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on universal mask-wearing has sparked fistfights and legal wrangling in states that emphasize parental choice. It’s causing new headaches for President Biden, who thought he had the virus beat this year but is combating the fast-moving delta variant even as schools regain their footing.
He insists schools can operate safely, pointing to a coronavirus relief package that doled out over $130 billion in K-12 relief funds for things like better ventilation systems, promoting vaccination or testing and contact tracing.
Challenged by the coronavirus’s delta variant and widespread reports of closures, Mr. Biden recently pledged additional testing supplies for schools through the Defense Production Act.
“I want all schools setting up regular testing programs to make sure we detect and isolate cases before they can spread,” the president said after a tour of a middle school in Washington.
As schools fine-tune defenses, the CDC recently issued “decision trees” that help classrooms determine whether another child had been a close contact with an infected student.
The agency says swift action to isolate exposures ” can slow spread in schools (and in the community) and help prevent school closures due to large-scale outbreaks.”
Fairmont Schools’ Ms. Jansen said she would recommend using some form of technology to give themselves a leg up in finding close contacts.
Trace Innovations CEO Graham Grieve said interest in his technology is spiking as schools return to in-person learning.
“Last spring and over the summer, people thought it was kind of over. And suddenly, as school has restarted, schools are seeing multiple positive tests a week,” Mr. Grieve said.
All of Trace Innovations’ clients are private, but the company said it is in discussions with public systems.
“Public schools traditionally have more decision makers and longer sales cycles, so we focused early efforts on private ones,” Mr. Grieve said.
When a student reports an infection, through regular school screening or testing at home, the Trace app shows whether the person was in close proximity to another student and for how long, cumulatively.
The CDC generally defines a close contact as someone who was within six feet from the infected student for a cumulative total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.
The app shows if persons were close together but it does not say if that proximity occurred on the playground, the gymnasium or somewhere else.
“You’re not seeing where someone was and you’re not seeing what they were doing,” said Mr. Grieve.
A school’s COVID-19 coordinator examines the app’s dashboard and handles the work of alerting individual students and their parents who are close contacts.
Mr. Grieve said the main benefit is that the app fills in gaps in the student’s recollection about who they were near and for how long. Bad information could result in overly cautious actions, like quarantining students who don’t need to.
“You’re putting the responsibility and the importance of in-person education, resting all that, on the individual recollection of these students,” Mr. Grieve said.
The app doesn’t completely replace traditional contact-tracing interviews. The infected student can always try to fill in the details of what the app doesn’t see, such as what their interactions entailed and if they were wearing masks.
Mr. Grieve took an interest in the technology after English classes he was teaching in Bari, Italy, on a Fulbright scholarship were converted to Google Meet because of the virus. It was hard to keep the high school students’ attention.
“It was immediately apparent just how much online education was going to have on students’ learning outcomes,” he said.
Ms. Jansen said there was pushback in her Orange County schools at first. The idea of using Bluetooth technology sounded like creepy “tracking,” but parents were convinced once they understood the technology and its privacy controls.
“This is probably the most privacy-protecting app on people’s phones,” Mr. Grieve said, “because we don’t sell data and we’re not tracking their location.”