Eau Claire school district Administration Building

Eau Claire school district Administration Building, 500 Main St.

EAU CLAIRE — As cases of COVID-19 surged in Eau Claire County this fall and the Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s contact tracing staff was overwhelmed, the Eau Claire school district began doing their own contact tracing, as well as helping families find tests for their students.

The district has created two temporary positions — dubbed COVID navigators — to help local families and students arrange coronavirus tests and answer questions about the virus.

The district also initially thought it may have to hire new personnel to take over contact tracing. Instead, so far, principals and assistant principals have been able to handle the duty of interviewing students and staff who test positive, then mapping and contacting their close contacts, said Kaying Xiong, executive director of student services.

“We were watching that, to see if it became a problem for the buildings, but what we’re finding out is our folks have really unfortunately gotten very good at this,” Xiong said. “The middle of November was when cases surged in the community, which means cases surged in our buildings. That was a high point for all our folks regarding the work they had to do, but they did a really good job with this.”

In November, cases of COVID-19 peaked in the county. It was posting 200-plus new cases per day, and county-level contact tracers were overwhelmed. At points in October, November and December, contact tracers have had so many cases they haven’t been able to call close contacts to notify them of possible exposures, county health officials said.

Contact tracing can be time-consuming, and it can’t always be done during normal business hours, said Mike Pernsteiner, associate principal overseeing athletics at North High School.

“Some situations take longer than others, if there are multiple students involved, for example,” Pernsteiner said in an email to the Leader-Telegram. “As all of us in the community have gotten more knowledgeable of testing, quarantining and other protocols, it has gotten easier. People tend to already be aware of what next steps they need to take after a positive COVID test result or having been a close contact.”

Through a grant from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and CARES Act funding, the school district also hired two part-time COVID navigators in October, Xiong said.

“When school first started, we didn’t have the National Guard (testing) sites yet,” she said. “Scheduling a test was a more complicated process. We had a lot of families with COVID-like symptoms.”

The COVID navigators aimed at helping students find tests faster, so contact tracers could map the virus more quickly if the students tested positive.

They’ve also answered COVID-related questions, occasionally provided transportation if students needed it and sometimes even delivered school materials to students who had to suddenly quarantine.

The two positions are funded through the end of March.

Xiong said she’s pleased with the district’s approach to contact tracing so far, noting that the district hasn’t seen school-by-school outbreaks, or even a case where a child or teacher tested positive and others in the same classroom or building were diagnosed with the virus in the same timeframe.

“We want to keep schools open to in-person learning, and as a result of that we’re trying to do as much as we can to quickly isolate positive cases and help families with testing,” Xiong said.

Pernsteiner agreed, saying the district’s hybrid model and keeping space between students has helped: “It has been rare that students or staff have been considered close contacts within the school day.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.