TORRINGTON — Due to an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases, the Wyoming Department of Health will no longer be responsible for conducting contact tracing or issuing quarantine orders for close contacts, according to a Nov. 6 press release. Heather Saul, Goshen County Public Health Emergency Response Coordinator, said her office is still conducting contact tracing with assistance from “critical infrastructures,” including Cowboy Clinic and Banner Community Hospital, which function as testing sites, and Goshen County School District No. 1.
“We’re partnering with those critical infrastructures to where if their employees or staff or students tested positive, they help us start that initial contact tracing so we can slow the spread,” Saul said. “With the uptick in cases, it’s been difficult to keep up with it.”
As of press time Monday, Goshen County had recorded 254 active cases and 339 total positive cases of COVID-19. GCSD accounted for 29 of these among its staff and students, according to the district COVID-19 dashboard.
GCSD Superintendent Ryan
Kramer said the district was involved in contact tracing in its schools from the beginning of the school year, rigorously keeping seating charts in classrooms and cafeterias.
“When the contact tracing stopped from the state perspective, we more or less took those reports that we’d always been doing from the very beginning of school and really tried to mitigate exposure of our students and staff members,” Kramer said.
Randy Epler, principal of Southeast Schools, created a contact tracing plan now used by each school throughout the district.
Close contacts to a positive case are classified as those who spent longer than 15 minutes throughout a 24 hour period with the infected individual without wearing face coverings. They will receive notification from either a school administrator or school nurse advising them to quarantine for 10 days.
“Previously, we were taking that contact tracing information to county health, and they were issuing the orders,” Epler said. “And of course with that change last week, now our school nurses are in charge of the quarantine or isolation orders and communicating with families.”
Kramer said the district’s elementary schools have largely avoided widespread quarantine orders, but it is mostly present within middle and high schools.
According to Kramer, contact tracing has shown the virus is not spreading within school walls, but in the community, where mask orders and social distancing measures are not enforced.
“We are not doing everything we can in our community to mitigate the spread,” Kramer said. “I am not advocating for closures, I am advocating for using strategies that we know work, and that includes face coverings and social distancing, and I’m not seeing that as much as I think we can accomplish in our community.”
Saul said the virus appears to spread primarily through social gatherings.
“You’re not seeing that being spread within the school, it’s outside of the school where people are getting together, there are more activities indoors with the cooler weather and the holiday season,” she said. “That’s where we’re seeing the uptick is, out within the community.”
Kramer said the district reached the highest absentee rates of the school year on Nov. 11, when 20% of students were out. The majority of these students were absent due to exposure to individuals who are waiting for COVID-19 test results.
GCSD is also experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers, which is an issue as more staff members either test positive for the coronavirus or have to quarantine due to exposure. Torrington High School Principal Chase Christensen said the pool of substitutes is typically small, but the issue is exacerbated this year.
“My secretary starts just about every morning looking through teachers who are going to be gone for the day and making a plan for others to cover,” he said. “Last year, that was probably something we had to do once every couple of weeks.”
Kramer said GCSD currently has 57 active substitutes, compared to 89 last winter. Typically, the district’s substitutes are retirees who are in the higher risk category so they’re hesitant to risk exposure in the classroom.
“We totally understand from that standpoint. Unfortunately, what that does is impacts us on the availability of subs,” Kramer said.
Epler said Southeast Schools were short three staff members on Nov. 13, resulting in teachers either covering classes during a break or combining classes. He said educators have handled difficulties gracefully, but staff shortages still pose challenges to a school’s operations.
“It’s not always as easy as maybe just combining classes and having another teacher take a bigger class load, sometimes that’s not possible,” Epler said. “It does limit the effectiveness of instruction.”
Substitute teachers in Wyoming must be certified by the Professional Teaching Standards Board (PTSB). To achieve certification, applicants must have a clean background check along with at least 60 college credits or a high school diploma plus 24 hours of school district in-service training and 30 hours of classroom observation.
Christensen said he’s heard from eligible community members who want to obtain these permits and join the pool of substitute teachers.
“A sub shortage always affects us; it impacts what we’re able to do on a day to day basis,” he said.