How are Jackson County schools handling COVID-19? Seven cases reported so far
Schools in Jackson County have been back in session for a week now, and Ripley’s entire seventh grade wasn’t allowed in the middle school on Aug. 23 because the health department was still contact tracing a case reported Sunday.
According to the COVID dashboard, there were 10 active cases in the school district as of Friday. Superintendent Blaine Hess said the dashboard doesn't distinguish between students and staff for privacy reasons.
COVID cases rising
Pocahontas is the only county in the state that's still in the green, meaning that it has three or less positive cases per 100,000 and a positivity percentage of less than 3%, according to the COVID case tracker on the state’s department of health and human resources website.
Jackson County is in the red. The tracker indicates that Jackson County is seeing a 9.42% positivity rate as of Tuesday with an infection rate of 39.49. There are 18 active delta variant cases in the county.
The CDC reports that the delta variant of COVID-19 is at least two times more contagious compared to previous strands.
The CDC updated its COVID recommendations on July 27 after seeing a staggering increase of positive cases. People, regardless of vaccination status, are recommended to wear masks while indoors.
With the state seeing a surge in cases, Gov. Jim Justice said during his Aug. 25 media briefing that he may enforce a mask mandate in schools if the positivity rate continues to climb.
Masks, at this time, aren't required in Jackson County Public Schools.
How are schools contact tracing?
Hess said it’s been easier to track and keep students in assigned seats in elementary schools — middle and high schools are more difficult.
All school buses in the county have assigned seats. Elementary students have assigned seats in their classrooms and the lunch tables are divided by classrooms.
When it comes to contact tracing in middle and high schools, Hess said administrators have to rely on interviews and school video footage. Ravenswood Middle School uses a seating chart at lunch to help with contact tracing efforts.
Hess said the school district works with the Jackson County Health Department on a daily basis to get updated case numbers and contact tracing.
The employees at the health department are already back to working overtime and on the weekends, Amy Haskins said. The county is seeing infection rates similar to last December and January.
"Our honeymoon period is over," Haskins said. "It was for maybe a total of three weeks during the summer."
For every COVID positive test, the health department asks the person infected who they had been around. With that information, the department then notifies the school and obtains contact information for those who may need to quarantine.
One positive case can take up to two hours to contact trace.
Haskins said that the department determines quarantines by CDC guidelines. Anyone exposed to the infected individual for more than 15 minutes is advised to quarantine.
"Because we do not have a mask mandate in the county, we then have to go back to what we were doing last year, which is quarantining anybody within six feet of the positive individual," Haskins said.
Those who have been vaccinated aren't required to quarantine once they've been exposed to an infected individual unless they develop symptoms, the CDC says, as long as they wear masks indoors for 14 days after exposure or get a negative test result.
What if a parent doesn’t want to send their child to school?
For middle and high schoolers, there’s a virtual option if a student or their parents would rather them switch to online learning. In order to pursue this option, Hess said, an interview process is required.
Elementary schools in the county don’t have an online option.
Hess said online learning was offered for elementary schoolers, but Jackson County decided to strip that option after noticing a concerning trend.
"We saw such a high failure rate that we felt to continue that would be a disservice to the students," Hess said.
When it comes to middle and high school students who may want to switch to virtual learning, an online option is available, but students must meet "certain conditions," like providing documentation of a health condition.
Haskins said parents should be taking precautions with their students at all times, not just when they're in school.
"Kids are not just being exposed at school," Haskins said.
The only clear option for a parent who may want to remove their elementary schooler from in-person instruction would be homeschooling, Hess said, unless a surrounding county that offers online learning would be willing to take on a student outside of their jurisdiction.
— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.