MINNEAPOLIS — On Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed that there are at least 95 preK-12 schools with COVID outbreaks.
An outbreak is having five or more students or staff with the virus.
That number is triple the number of schools compared to just last week. Counties with the highest number of schools with outbreaks are Hennepin, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Anoka.
In addition, there are 770 schools that are reporting at least one case of COVID among students and staff.
In terms of figuring out who is getting COVID, contact tracing is still a key tool in doing so.
Parents of younger kids who aren't eligible for the vaccine say this is one of the best tools to mitigate spread while they wait for a vaccine, but parents say there isn't a good notification system set up yet for COVID exposures.
Many parents may be familiar with a colorful sheet that comes home with their kiddos once in a while — usually when there's a communicable disease outbreak in schools. Unfortunately, given the nature of schools, outbreaks are pretty common, including things like lice, pink eye or chicken pox.
"If there is a child in your child's classroom who has a communicable disease, things like strep throat, influenza, lice, [and] hand, foot, mouth, you get a note home right away letting you know there was a child in your child's classroom that was diagnosed with this particular disease," Dr. Katie Loth said.
Loth is an epidemiologist but also a mother of three. She too has seen her fair share of those "disease fact sheets." However, she said she hasn't seen one yet for COVID-19, even though she knows her kids' schools have had incidents of exposure.
The thing is, the fact sheet for COVID-19 does exist at least on the Hennepin County's daycare manual site. The site is a comprehensive manual of communication protocols when it comes to communicable diseases, and the COVID-19 fact sheet is nestled in between conjunctivitis and croup.
As for how things are working right now, Loth said it's mostly a verbal communication.
"Right now parents will receive a phone call, I believe, if their child has been deemed to have been in close contact with a child with COVID," Loth explained. "The timeliness of that has been pretty variable and the information that comes along with that notification is pretty — it varies case to case. 'Your child came into contact with someone sometime last week,' as an example."
She added that kind of notification is a little bit too late in terms of trying to isolate a child who may have been exposed to COVID.
In a statement, St. Paul Public Schools said this in response to an inquiry of how they are handling COVID exposure communication. SPPS spokesperson Kevin Burns sent this statement:
"Beginning this coming Monday, all SPPS students in a classroom where a positive case was identified will receive a notification. If a student is considered a close contact, the family will receive instructions on next steps (getting tested, quarantining, etc.)."
Initially, Loth put out a call to action on Twitter asking for more pressure on school districts and the state for a uniform notification protocol.
Parents from Minneapolis, the West Metro, and North Metro have chimed in saying it's not just Loth's district that's having communication issues.
"One of the things that I think all parents are dealing with right now is sort of this challenge, especially parents of kids under 12," Loth said. "We don't have the opportunity to vaccinate our child, so all we can do is lean on some of the other tools that we have at our disposal so things like masking, distancing, and then comes into play this contact tracing which requires transparency."
Loth says for now, at least for her community, they're relying on the colloquial "mom network," but that in itself can leave parents out and eliminates anonymity.
"Some folks have started Whatsapp channels to try to understand who is it that's tested positive who might they have come into contact with and I know that's leaving out people," Loth said. "If you're new to the area, if you don't have a strong social network in your neighborhood or at your school for families that might be busy or have multiple jobs and don't have the opportunity to tap into those resources, as well as people who might speak a different language."
Loth said she believes a more streamlined strategy of communication recommended to schools by the state would be helpful, especially as parents of young kids await a vaccine that'll work for them.
"Knowing that that's coming should really inspire us to do all we can to protect the children in the meantime. We only need to do this for a couple more months for those 5- to 12-year-olds," she said. "That shouldn't make us sit back, it should make us excited to continue to use all these tools for as long as we can to keep many kids as we're able to."
We have reached out to the Minnesota Department of Health as well as the Minnesota Department of Education in terms of what they are planning to do to establish a protocol.
MDH said this in a statement:
"We encourage schools to develop letters and resources that students can take home but ultimately schools decide whether to send the letters and what the content is.
As for the bigger picture, MDE and MDH stand ready to support schools as they navigate this school year. With the end of the peacetime emergency on July 1, the executive orders (including the Safe Learning Plan) are no longer in effect. This means that health and safety decisions are made at the local level and we do not have the authority to step in with mandates at this time. Over the summer, the Minnesota Department of Health issued best practice recommendations to support school leaders and school boards in designing plans to protect the health and safety of students, staff and families. We have communicated that schools should implement policies such as universal masking, social distancing, contact tracing, quarantining and other practices outlined in the MDH guidance in order to protect the health and safety of students, staff and families. MDE and MDH have also provided schools with COVID-19 testing resources and funding to support these efforts.
Additionally, we know that vaccines are the best tool we have to slow the spread, and the MDE and MDH are continuing to partner in promoting vaccines to the 12-17 age group."