On Wednesday my 7th grader was looking forward to his first JV baseball practice after school. But instead, we got a text from him in the middle of the day: “I have to go home.”
Editor's Note: Heather Schatz is the producer of WJCT News' First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross. In this essay she shares what information was available to her as a parent after she found out her son sat close to a COVID-19 positive student.
He had been exposed to someone with COVID. It’s the moment I had been dreading since we made the nearly impossible decision to send him back to Landrum Middle School, in person, exactly two weeks ago.
I fall into a high-risk group, so my husband and I had intended to keep both our kids at home to start the new school year. We are extremely lucky to even have a decision to make because both of us are able to work remotely.
However, it became clear that my son would struggle with distance learning, based on the way he learns and the greater focus that seems to be directed to students in the classroom. Though we were uneasy about it, we ultimately put our (especially my) health at risk to keep him from falling behind and to end his isolation.
It seemed like the best decision for him, even though I questioned it in my gut every morning as he left the house.
After we got our son’s text late Wednesday morning, my husband drove to pick him up and get as much information as he could. School staff told us a student who sat next to our son in class on Tuesday had tested positive that evening. We would need to keep him quarantined at home for two weeks and monitor him for symptoms.
Within a few hours, a contact tracer with the Florida Department of Health in St. Johns County called. While he tried his best to be helpful, there was only so much information he was able to share:
- My son had at least 15 minutes of exposure to the positive student at a distance of under 6 feet
- He strongly recommended that my son get tested, but was not able to offer guidance as to when that would make the most sense. I know an MIT study found that testing for coronavirus a day after exposure may yield a negative result, despite a person’s testing positive for the virus a few days later. How many parents test immediately and take the result as final, I wonder?
- He said everyone else in my home does not need to quarantine unless our son develops symptoms or his test comes back positive.
- The county is not offering express COVID testing to students like they have at Duval County’s state-run testing site. If we want a free test, we need to drive to the Department Of Health in St. Augustine.
- When I asked if there was community spread in the school and how many cases there were in our school overall, he could not comment due to HIPPA regulations.
When we started talking to other St. Johns County parents who are also trying to sleuth out how their children were exposed, it appeared that more than one kid in his grade must have tested positive. We heard that more Landrum Middle School students were sent home to quarantine on Thursday morning.
Exactly how big of an issue is it in his school? How many students and educators there have tested positive and how many more are quarantined because of them? I may never know.
The St. Johns County School District offers a district-wide coronavirus dashboard, which is updated once a week and does not provide information broken down by school. Duval’s dashboard, on the other hand, is updated daily and lists the number of cases among students and staff in each school.
The St. Johns County School District is asking the state Health Department for permission to publish school-specific numbers, a spokeswoman said on Thursday. As of that afternoon, there was "no indication" of community spread within a single school, she said.
The local Department of Health (DOH) determines if an entire classroom needs to quarantine when there is a “cluster,” defined by the CDC as more than two cases that are connected in time and place. If the DOH doesn't find a cluster, only the people determined to have had immediate contact with the positive case will be notified. Others in the same room may never find out.
What we do know is we are not alone in Florida. According to WJCT News partner News4Jax, pediatric COVID-19 cases in the state have seen a 20% spike since August 10, around the time when schools in Florida began opening their doors for in-person learning.
Our son was exposed despite our best efforts to keep our family safe (e.g. wearing masks, distancing, limiting contact to our bubble) since March, not just because of my risk, but because I lost two former colleagues to COVID-19, one in her 30s who leaves behind a toddler. We also know others who survived it but were told they may have complications for the rest of their lives.
On Wednesday evening, after waiting several hours to get into an urgent care that offers rapid COVID-19 testing, my son’s result came back. Negative. But we will continue to monitor him closely, just in case.
And what if this isn’t the last time? What if we send him back again in two weeks and it happens again?
Update: This story was updated on Thursday afternoon to include information from the St. Johns School District spokeswoman.
- WJCT News' Sky Lebron contributed to this report.