When Heather Haines’ son, 11, started to get a runny nose, she didn’t think much of it.
Days later, he looked a little worse. His eyes were red, he looked tired and he had a slight cough. He was still spunky and energetic, but to be safe, she said he’d better get tested for COVID-19. “That’s when he says to me, ‘Yeah, that might be a good idea, the girl next to me in class has COVID,’ ” Haines told the Idaho Statesman. “And I said, ‘Wait, wait, what? Why wasn’t I notified?’ ”
She hadn’t heard a thing from the school, she said. The district confirmed to the Idaho Statesman another person in the class had tested positive for the virus since the start of the year, and a total of five students in fifth grade at the elementary school her son goes to had tested positive, according to what was reported to the district. But Joey Palmer, the federal programs director for the district, would not share other details.
Had she known about any possible exposures, Haines said she would have acted differently. She wouldn’t have let her son spend time with his grandparents, who are older and — even though they are vaccinated — more vulnerable, she said. Her son tested positive for the virus. Since then, Haines has too, along with her daughter, her ex-husband and her parents. Haines wants to know why she wasn’t told her son may have been exposed to the virus in school so she could make her own decisions on whether to quarantine her children, and how to keep those around them safe. She wants to find a solution so parents can make informed choices going forward. “This should not be happening,” she said. “People are dying.”
Vallivue district policy restricts exposure info
The Vallivue School District, where masks are optional, has a different policy than many other districts in the region.
The district gives each school a color based on the spread within the school. The data is updated every two weeks.
Schools where less than 1% of students and staff have tested positive for the virus in a two-week period are in the green category. Schools with between 1% and 3% of people positive are in the yellow. And those with more than 3% are classified as red.
For students whose schools are in green or yellow, the district does not notify parents directly of any potential exposures. Instead, the district puts on its website a graphic showing the category of the school, the percent that have tested positive and — for schools in the yellow category — in what grades there were positive cases reported. It doesn’t show information on what classes the students were in. Haines’ son’s school was previously in the yellow category, but moved to green last week.
The policy is partially due to “confidentiality issues,” Palmer said, though he did not cite a law that prevents the district from notifying parents. If the district did contact trace and notify parents in those situations when fewer people had tested positive, it would be easy for others to figure out who had the virus, he said.
“We can’t dial it in any deeper than that because that’s when we get closer to confidentiality issues,” he told the Statesman. “We get as close as we can to help parents make an informed decision.” Southwest District Health, which includes the Vallivue district in its region, said there usually shouldn’t be any “confidentiality violation” when notifying people who may have been exposed to the virus at school.
“Notification of close contacts should not provide any identifiable details of the case, the usual text followed being ‘you have been identified as a close contact of a positive COVID-19 (or any communicable disease) case at school/work/community/event’. No further details regarding exposure source need to be disclosed,” Ashley Anderson from Southwest District Health told the Statesman in an email.
“However, in a very rare situation where a school has very few students/staff (say less than five students and staff), making it easy to figure out who the COVID-19-positive person would be, then confidentiality breach can be a concern. However, such a scenario would be extremely unlikely.”
Palmer also said the district doesn’t contact trace unless schools are in the red category. Part of that is due to staffing and part of it is because if they did, they could have to send home hundreds of kids who aren’t sick, he said. Last year, when the district did contact trace, it found transmission of the virus was low in schools, he said.
“We wouldn’t want to unnecessarily quarantine kids,” he said.
In schools in the red zone, the school would notify parents.
Palmer said the district has been seeing a decrease in the total number of cases district-wide. The first two weeks of school, the district saw about 200 total cases. Over the most recent two weeks ending on Sept. 28, the district saw about 100, he said. Palmer acknowledged that data isn’t perfect and relies on people getting tested and reporting positive cases.
“There’s no perfect plan and there’s no way we can promise a safe environment from COVID,” Palmer said. “COVID is everywhere.”
So far, he said, the district has been able to keep schools open, with many in the green category. But they are continuing to monitor how COVID-19 is impacting the schools and reviewing the data to see if they need to reevaluate their plans, he said.
What other districts are doing
Other school districts in the region have differing policies for how they track cases and whether they enforce mandatory quarantines or contact trace. But most in the area do notify families when their student has potentially been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus.
According to guidelines from Central District Health, when students who are masked are exposed in a school setting, they don’t need to quarantine from school and extracurricular activities, but they should watch for symptoms and continue wearing a mask in school. If a student is exposed but is vaccinated, regardless of whether they are masked, they don’t have to quarantine but should wear a mask indoors for 14 days following exposure or until they return a negative test. When students who are not wearing masks and are unvaccinated are exposed, they should quarantine, the guidance said.
That’s the policy that the Boise School District follows. The district, which requires masks, has over the past several weeks had more than 1,000 people quarantining each week. The district told the Statesman earlier this month that much of that stemmed from possible exposures outside of the classroom.
The Nampa School District doesn’t contact trace, but it does send emails to families when it knows of a possible exposure in a classroom. The Kuna School District also notifies parents about potential exposures.
‘Worth saying something about’
Right before Haines’ son tested positive for COVID-19, Haines received her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The day after she got the second dose, she wasn’t feeling well — a normal side effect after the shot. So, she had her babysitter watch her kids, potentially exposing the babysitter to the virus. The next day, she took her son to his grandparents’ house — her parents — where he stayed the night.
Haines, her ex-husband and her daughter soon after started developing symptoms. Haines said she had a headache, a sore throat and fatigue — but it hadn’t been too bad for her.
It’s her parents who she’s really concerned about, she said. Whenever her mom gets even a cold, she said, she gets pneumonia.
Her mom experienced severe symptoms from the virus, but is doing better now, she said.
“We’ve been terrified of this happening since COVID happened,” she said. “Our whole family has been trying to protect her because we know this could take her down.”
Dr. David Pate, former St. Luke’s CEO, said parents should be notified about possible exposures in the classroom.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t tell parents if their child has been exposed,” he said. “It may have implications for their families. I just think it’s wrong.”
He said he doesn’t know of any specific law that would prevent a school from notifying parents.
Pate has been a vocal advocate for mask mandates in the classroom, warning consistently of how transmissible the delta variant is. Some school districts in the Treasure Valley have mandated masks, including Boise and West Ada, and others have mask-optional policies, such as Nampa.
Haines said she doesn’t need to know names of students with the virus. It could be as simple as sending kids home with a piece of paper that says your child may have been exposed to the virus and letting parents make their own judgments about how to move forward, and potentially protect people who are more vulnerable.
In several other school districts, such as Nampa and Kuna, parents receive an email if their child was in class with a student who tested positive for the virus.
She said she loves her kids’ school and is grateful to all of the teachers there, but parents should have this information going forward.
“It just really makes me mad,” she said. “This affects families. This is serious. This is, to me, worth saying something about.”