Clay County teachers say COVID-19 contact tracing system full of ‘holes’

Union leader cites COVID-19 related “angst” and “stress” among instructors & staff in Clay County schools

VIDEO: Teachers in Clay County said the local health department isn’t providing information on the spread of the coronavirus within the district’s facilities fast enough.

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – Teachers in Clay County said Tuesday the local health department isn’t providing information on the spread of the coronavirus within the district’s facilities fast enough.

On Friday, a Clay County teacher died due to COVID-19 complications, though it’s unclear whether they were exposed at a school. (News4Jax is withholding the name of that instructor at the request of family members.)

“Most of what I hear from teachers is about their stress level," said Victoria Kidwell, President of the Clay County Education Association. “The district feels that the Department of Health is doing a great job and the teachers don’t. So, that’s the problem.”

Kidwell and multiple other Clay County School District staff members who asked to remain anonymous told News4Jax that the slow pace of the contact tracing and notification is affecting morale.

“There’s a lot of angst out there,” Kidwell said. “Rightly so, because our teachers are on the front line, they’re taking a lot of risks, they’re in crowded situations in the classrooms, and they are becoming even more crowded.”

Kidwell said it’s common for teachers or staff members to hear about a positive case of the virus in a school, but are not allowed to notify students or teachers who they know came into contact with that person due to HIPAA restrictions.

"So, [teachers] may know from a colleague that a colleague is out because the colleague was exposed and has a positive case. And they know who’s the kids are in the class, and they just watch to see how long does it take for these kids to get contacted. There’s a huge delay,” she added.

The contact tracing process is performed by the Florida Department of Health in Clay County. According to the department, that process begins up to 24 hours after a positive case is identified.

“DOH-Clay works closely with the Clay County District Schools to conduct contract tracing within the school system,” said FDOH Chief Health Strategist Sydney Marlow. “The Department utilizes individual interviews in conjunction with school reports, school seating charts, afterschool activity rosters, and additional interviews to conduct investigations and contact tracing."

The Florida Department of Health COVID-19 Dashboard is updated daily. The school report is supposed to be updated weekly but as of the publication of this article on Nov. 17, the latest update was Nov. 7.

The Clay County School District COVID-19 dashboard only shows district-wide data and is updated weekly.

Neither dashboard, Kidwell said, gives an accurate, real-time description of how the pandemic is spreading on campus.

“There’s a huge delay,” Kidwell said. “The teachers are on the front line and seeing the holes in the system. The district has given that responsibility to the Department of Health, which they don’t feel are doing a great job.”

Because COVID-19 is a full-time crisis, Kidwell said the department of health should extend the hours in which contact tracers are active or have them operate 24-hours a day.

Marlow said the tracing process is the same in Clay County as it is across the state.

“When the Department of Health receives notification that a person has tested positive for COVID-19, the department conducts an extensive epidemiological investigation to identify individuals who may have had close contact with the virus,” Marlow said. “Those individuals are then notified by their county health department and instructed to self-isolate for 14 days after their exposure to the virus, and to contact their county health department and health care provider immediately if they develop symptoms. This process is followed for all individuals who test positive in Florida.”

NOTE: The Clay County Education Association reached an impasse Friday night in its negotiations with the district over the distribution of state-funded pay raises for teachers.

About the Author:

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.