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Principal Kelli Clause, left, and school nurse Maudry Durand, RN, talk about the isolation room, a room students will go to if they are suspected of having Covid-19 symptoms, during a tour of Ossun Elementary School to show media and school board members the measures that have been put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 Tuesday, September 1, 2020, in the community of Ossun, La.

Lafayette Public Schools instructed school-based contact tracers to stop work for four days over Thanksgiving without informing parents, some of whom received notifications the following week that their children had been exposed to the coronavirus prior to the holiday.

The instruction was communicated to 45 nurses and LPSS Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Gardner in a Nov. 24 email from Julie Buller, the district’s health services director. Buller told the staff not to work from Wednesday to Saturday over the holiday, adding that “we can address situations on Sunday if needed.”

Four parents of students in the district told the Acadiana Advocate they learned of the decision after notifications on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 that their children had been exposed the previous week, before the Thanksgiving break.

Naomi Quebedeaux received a call from the Edgar Martin Middle school nurse the night of Nov. 29 informing her that her son, a fifth-grader, had been exposed to an infected student during class on Nov. 24. Hours earlier, Quebedeaux’s in-laws visited the family to celebrate a late Thanksgiving.

“Had I known sooner than 8:30 p.m. on the 29th, I wouldn’t have seen two sets of grandparents on two separate days over the holidays,” Quebedeaux said.

It is not clear when the infected student tested positive, or when the district learned about it.

Monica Grizzaffi, whose daughter is in the same class as Quebedeaux’s son, said she wasn’t notified about the exposure until after 8 a.m. Nov. 30. Her daughter was already arriving at school on the bus when the call was made. Grizzaffi said it was initially confusing to learn her daughter had been exposed in school, since school had been out for five days.

“(The school representative) said ‘well, the exposure was before Thanksgiving break.’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness, why are you guys just contacting me now?” Grizzaffi said.

Two other parents of Lafayette Parish students told the Acadiana Advocate they also received notifications on the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving that their children had been exposed prior to the break.

All four parents said their children completed their quarantine periods without developing COVID-19 symptoms. 

The district acknowledged the lapse in regular contact tracing, though it claimed staff with the Nursing Health Services Department continued to trace all reported cases of COVID-19 during the holiday while school-based nurses were on vacation.

The district said it is “aware of two instances in which such tracing was delayed until Sunday, November 29, 2020,” according to an emailed statement from a spokesperson.

It was not clear if the statement referred to two contact calls or two coronavirus cases, with an unknown number of associated contacts. The spokesperson, Allison Dickerson, did not respond to a request for clarification.

Dickerson also did not respond to queries about how many COVID-19 cases were contact traced during the holiday, if the district had a defined plan for contact tracing during holidays or if the district sought contact tracing assistance from public health authorities while school-based nurses were on vacation.

Quebedeaux said the district should have notified parents that central office staff members were handling contact tracing efforts over the holiday. She said she did not know who she would have contacted if it was her child who tested positive.

“Who would I contact? There’s no central phone number to call on a holiday,” Quebedeaux said. “Do I just send an email and hope that they’re checking it over the holiday break? That’s really frustrating.”

It is “critical” for schools to immediately start contact tracing upon identification of new cases, according to Louisiana Department of Health guidance. The guidance does not address whether school contact tracing must occur during weekends and holidays.

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The district has not publicly disclosed details about its contact tracing operation, including the hours of operation, number of assigned personnel and holiday staffing plans.

Buller’s email to staff indicated that contact tracers have regularly worked on weekends, and that the off days over Thanksgiving were intended to allow for a needed break.

“I know everyone is working harder than ever before due to this Covid crisis. Calls in the evenings, contact tracing on the weekends, updating spreadsheets, calling parents and explaining why their children have to quarantine, forms, pace calls, tracking, tracking and more tracking. We are all tired,” Buller’s email said.

The health department in September ordered all schools, including public, private and charter schools, to identify and report new COVID-19 cases on campus to a centralized state database. Schools are also expected to notify close on-campus contacts of newly infected individuals, according to the LDH guidance to schools.

In Lafayette, school nurses and other administrators have handled COVID-19 reporting and tracking in schools. District administrators said previously close contacts are notified personally and instructed on quarantine protocols, while individuals in classrooms or settings with a positive case who are not considered close contacts receive an automated message from the school system.

The state’s regional health director, Tina Stefanski, said in an email that Lafayette school nurses “have been working extremely closely with us over the last several months.”

“(LDH staff) communicate very regularly with these nurses and they have been critical in ensuring that safe environments are provided for students, faculty and staff,” Stefanski said.

She declined to say whether the district had consulted her office on the decision to temporarily scale back contact tracing over Thanksgiving, and referred questions to the district.

Student cases in Lafayette Parish have climbed every week since parish-level data was made available in October, except over the week of Thanksgiving. It’s unclear which schools are recording cases; the state does not provide a case breakdown by school type or by school campus.

There were 97 student cases reported in Lafayette from Nov. 30 to Dec. 6, up from nine reported in the second full week of October. Lafayette Parish now has 402 total reported student COVID-19 cases, the second-most in the state behind St. Tammany Parish, which has reported 471 total student cases.

The scale back in contact tracing in Lafayette’s public schools over Thanksgiving points to a larger problem within school districts and local health authorities across the country, said Candace Miller, a senior researcher at Mathematica who also directs Washington state’s contact tracing program.

Contact tracing efforts everywhere are understaffed and underfinanced, Miller said, and officials are often forced to balance public health with the well-being of staff.

“I don’t think this is unique. Parents might see this personally as very, very painful,” Miller said. “But it’s much bigger than one decision. These types of decisions, this type of balancing is happening in every state across the country, because we are not set up to do this well.”

At the same time, Miller stressed that officials should do everything possible to plan in advance for holiday breaks or other disruptions. For example, she said, holiday breaks could be staggered, with some on duty over Thanksgiving and others over Christmas and New Year’s, she said.

“The communication has to be there between the schools, the local health departments and the state for backup. There are alternative solutions,” Miller said. “It really does take some leadership from somewhere to remind people about how communication is critical.”


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com