Public health officials have said an essential part of containing the COVID-19 pandemic is contact tracing, the process of tracking down everyone who might have been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the virus.
But in small, rural schools like many of those in the Monadnock Region, officials have to take extra care to preserve confidentiality during this process — and when sharing information about positive cases with the community.
Several area schools have seen COVID cases this fall, according to the state, including Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon, Gilsum STEAM Academy and Troy Elementary School, as well as Keene State College and Franklin Pierce University.
In the Monadnock Regional School District, Superintendent Lisa Witte said officials are following state guidance when it comes to sharing information about positive COVID-19 cases. When announcing the cases reported at Gilsum and Troy this fall — each of which involved a single person — the district did not specify whether the person was a student or staff member, as some schools in larger communities have done.
Beyond privacy concerns, Witte said, that’s because the district’s response to a positive case would be the same in either scenario, so there’s no need to disclose that information.
“We identified that there was an individual that tested positive and did not indicate if that was a student, if that was an employee,” Witte said. “Because our schools are small, and that, to me and to our team, was just a little too identified.”
According to data from the N.H. Department of Education, about 1,600 students were enrolled in the Monadnock district, which serves Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, as of last fall.
The actual work of contact tracing falls to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, which reaches out to people identified as close contacts of positive cases to tell them to quarantine and monitor their health, according to spokesman Jake Leon. The department’s COVID Case Investigation Plan specifies that close contacts are not told the identity of the person who may have exposed them.
Witte said Monadnock staff and families are taking confidentiality seriously, as well.
“What I’ve observed and heard is that folks have been really good about not feeding that need to go, ‘Who is it, what is it, who did it?’ ” she said. “And instead saying, ‘You know what, it’s under control, people have privacy, we have stress, but folks are doing the right thing.’ ”
She noted, however, that the state’s dashboard for reporting COVID-19 cases in schools appears to approach confidentiality for school districts differently than it does for towns. The dashboard for municipalities does not report the exact number of cases if there are fewer than four and the town is under a certain size, due to privacy concerns. The schools dashboard does report exact numbers.
Leon did not respond to an emailed question about the state’s COVID reporting dashboard for schools. In an emailed statement, he said the state health department has a COVID-19 toolkit for schools, which includes sample letters districts can use to announce positive cases to the community.
“We recommend school administrators communicate with their families and communities when someone associated with the school who contracts COVID-19 has been identified, while also maintaining strict privacy and confidentiality of the people affected by not releasing any information that could identify the person,” Leon said in an email.
Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District created a communication plan around COVID-19 during its preparations for the reopening process, according to Nicholas Handy, communications coordinator for the district. An ad-hoc committee of about 50 parents, teachers, administrators, staff and school board members worked on the plan, Handy said.
It lays out three tiers of communication types — alerts, urgent and informational — with the district using more methods of communication as the tiers increase in urgency, such as website updates, Facebook posts, robo-calls and emails to families.
“A positive COVID-19 case falls into our highest tier ‘alerts’, meaning we will work with every communication method we have to let our families, staff, and community know what is happening,” Handy wrote. “We have specifically stated in our Reopening Framework that [we’ll] make the school district community aware of any positive COVID-19 case by the end of the day.”
Like the Monadnock district, Handy said, Jaffrey-Rindge would not specify whether a positive case is a student or staff member, to preserve privacy for those who test positive or must quarantine or isolate. The district had about 1,400 students as of fall 2019, according to state data.
Handy said it’s a balance of public health and confidentiality.
“We will give as much information as possible to walk the line between those two values — both of which are important in cases like these,” he said.