Lee schools has 2,000 rapid COVID-19 tests and is working on a plan to use them

Pamela McCabe
| Fort Myers News-Press

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Lee County schools will have isolation rooms separate from clinic for students who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms

Lee County schools will have isolation rooms separate from clinic for students who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms

The time it takes to find out if a student has COVID-19 might get a little quicker.

The Lee County school district has about 2,000 rapid COVID-19 tests, and, once the school system secures an arrangement with Lee Health, students could be administered the 15-minute test on site to know if they can go back to class or should head home for a 14-day quarantine. 

Lauren Stillwell, who serves as chief of staff in the district, made the announcement last week during a school board meeting while fielding questions about the quarantine process in schools.

Stillwell has been at helm of the district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and she said the state sent the district about 40 boxes of rapid tests a couple week ago.

More: Lee school district hires Cape’s police chief to lead safety, security and emergency management

She said the district is working out a plan with Lee Health to administer the tests, and hopes the county will be able to direct some of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to reimburse the hospital chain for the labor.

“Those are conversations that are moving forward,” Stillwell told the board of the proposal. 

Schools nurses can’t administer the tests because they don’t carry the required certification, known as Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment Certificate of Waiver, Stillwell said.

If all goes well with the proposal, staff will present the testing process to the school board during a Nov. 16 workshop meeting, with a memorandum of understanding with Lee Health going to them for approval the next night for a vote.

No other details were announced. An agenda for the meeting has yet to be posted.

The topic came up during a discussion about how the local school system was handling COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

Since the first day of school on Aug. 31, the district has sent out 183 alerts about positive cases of COVID-19 being confirmed on campuses or at school-related buildings. The district has not shared the number of COVID-19 cases in the schools, nor has it shared quarantine data tied to any cases.

A dashboard on the district’s website has since been replaced with a link to the Florida Department of Health’s weekly report on COVID-19 cases in public and private schools, colleges and universities. 

More: Lee school system stops logging COVID cases online, links to Department of Health data instead

The district is home to 97 traditional public schools that serve around 85,000 students and employs 12,000 people.

The local Department of Health handles contact tracing efforts when someone tests positive for the coronavirus.

The schools aide in the quarantine process by handing over classroom and bus seating charts, but the process is handled by the health department, which in turn tells the schools the date a quarantined person, be it a student or an employee, is safe to return to campus.

If a quarantine order is issued for an entire classroom, which has happened four times since the start of school in August, learning transitions from in-person to the Lee Home Connect model.

The fourth classroom closure: Skyline Elementary classroom closed for 14-day quarantine

But if an individual student is asked to quarantine, it is up to the school and teachers to decide how to handle the absence from school. Stillwell said they would either follow along with assignments via Google Classroom or they could be brought into the Lee Home Connect model for live, virtual instruction.

Board member Melisa Giovannelli shared a list of concerns brought to her by parents, which questioned the quality of contact tracing being done in Lee County.

Families have told her that calls from the Department of Health about possible exposures often come a week late. Giovannelli said that the notice has been so late at times that the 14-day quarantine order had already passed and the child never missed a day of school.

Stillwell said the health department typically contacts the schools within 24 or 48 hours. She conjectured that any delays in parent notification are likely due to when a student was actually tested for the virus.

Delayed testing, she added, has been a problem in the schools.

Often, parents are opting to keep their sick kids at home and not get them tested until five or six days into an illness. By the time the positive results roll in, a full week — or more — has gone by.

“In reality, we should have quarantined other kids in the school like a week before, but we’re not getting notified of positive tests until way far into the time that the parents are keeping them home,” Stillwell said.

Schools are also seeing symptomatic children come to school, which routes them through the isolation room for family pickup and puts employees and students at risk of infection. There are other families who keep their kids home but refuse testing.

While the district has guidelines in place for preventing the spread of COVID-19, Stillwell said parental choice still comes into play with how families handle their child’s health. If a student never gets tested, contact tracing and quarantine orders would never come about because the health department relies on lab-confirmed positive cases.

Giovannelli also alleged the tracing wasn’t “really thorough,” because a sibling, boyfriend or girlfriend may have never made a quarantine list.

Stillwell confirmed that if there is a positive case on campus, there would be a quarantine order for any students that could have been directly exposed to the virus. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean that the sibling of someone potentially exposed to the virus would be asked to quarantine.

Also, it is up to an individual to tell the health department who they have been around, especially outside of the school day.

This is where the district is hoping to better educate families, said Superintendent Greg Adkins.

“When you are quarantined, it means quarantine,” Adkins said, pointing to how people have loosened up on COVID-19 protocols outside of school and work by going to parties and hanging with friends after hours.

He said there have been a few situations when students reached by the health department for contact tracing will share who they interacted with at a recent event, and it turns out that one of those students should have been at home due to quarantine. 

Adkins said if a family is contacted by the health department, they should follow the guidelines on how to properly quarantine “so that we have less and less of this.”

Debbie Jordan, a school board member, recently met a contact tracer who explained the complications of the job. She said the health department appreciates the maps of “where children are sitting” that the district hands over, but there is “a whole ‘nother ream of it” when you start thinking about where a child goes after school — the playground, a community swimming pool or a friends’ house.

“It’s just a touchy situation and we have to keep trying to do the best that we can do to make sure that everybody is safe,” Jordan said.


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