By Reema Amin, Originally published on Chalkbeat New York
The incident raises questions about potential holes in the city’s contact tracing infrastructure.
A Brooklyn elementary school student tested positive for the coronavirus 10 days before the school community learned the child’s results, according to two teachers who are now quarantining.
Cypress Hills’ P.S. 7 is supposed to face extra scrutiny when it comes to tracking coronavirus cases. Located in one of the state’s yellow “warning” zones, just outside areas with higher virus positivity rates, the school must test a portion of students and staff every week.
The student was tested at Elmhurst Hospital, rather than as part of the school-based program, according to the teachers and the union that represents them. The parent failed to tell the Test and Trace investigators that the child had had close contacts at a school, education department officials said.
Close contacts are supposed to quarantine for 14 days.
The education department did not immediately confirm whether the parent was asked or disclosed what school the child attended, but said in some contact tracing interviews, parents are asked where their children are enrolled and if they are attending in person. (The city’s team of contact tracers investigate who has been in close contact with a COVID-positive person, and let them know of their risk; the tracing team may immediately inform the education department of their findings.)
P.S. 7 only learned about the test results when school staff called the student’s home after a week’s absence, said the two teachers, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. The child had no symptoms but got tested in advance of an upcoming out-of-state trip the family planned to take, the teachers said.
The incident raises serious questions about potential holes in the city’s contact tracing infrastructure, despite reassurances from officials that rigorous protocols are in place to communicate quickly about potential exposures. It also raises questions of how such situations are being handled at schools citywide.
“How did this happen, and how do we know this won’t happen again, and who is going to be held accountable?” asked one of the teachers.
They have also raised their concerns with the city teachers union, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat. Union officials have asked the city to investigate why the education department was not notified of the positive test results — calling it a breach “that needs to be identified and addressed,” Alison Gendar, a spokesperson for the union, said in a statement. She added that once department officials became aware of the student’s positive test, the union believes the proper health and safety protocols were followed.
Families should immediately notify their school if their child tests positive, education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said.
“Student cases are reported by parents directly to the school or identified through Test+Trace interviews, and as soon as we are made aware we take the necessary steps to keep the community safe,” Styer said in a statement. “[Families] must report accurate information to Test+Trace investigators when contacted.”
The education department has set up a “situation room,” which is supposed to notify immediately the affected school, confirm reports of positive cases, and begin contact tracing. The school alerted the situation room when they found out, the teachers said.
The teachers received a letter from their school on Nov. 2 mandating they quarantine until Nov. 7. The education department form letter notes that quarantines must last for two weeks after possible exposure. The teachers, however, received this letter more than a week late and learned they had only four days left to quarantine. Before hearing of the positive case, they went to school daily, with one of the teachers seeing eight different cohorts of students in one week and returning home to family members, including those who are at high risk for COVID-19 complications.
Since one positive case triggers a classroom closure, the student’s eight peers were also supposed to have quarantined for 14 days after exposure, the teachers explained, but they only ended up remaining home for the last four days.
The teachers who spoke with Chalkbeat have since tested negative for COVID-19. Still, both said they felt unsafe returning to the building because they don’t know how quickly the school would be notified of future positive cases.
The student reportedly received a positive test result from Elmhurst, a Queens public hospital, on Oct. 23 and had been to school that same day, the teachers were told. But staff did not discover the positive result until Monday, Nov. 2, when school officials checked in with the family due to the student’s ongoing absence. During that phone call, the child’s mother told school staffers about the positive result, the teachers said.
That afternoon, the school’s principal and assistant principal approached the two teachers and a third person who had contact with the child to inform them of the positive result, they said. The educators were asked to finish their in-person duties for the day and start quarantining the following day.
One of the teachers got tested later that day and received a negative result hours later. The other had been tested randomly at the school the previous Friday, Oct. 30, and also received a negative result.
Given those results, there is a “very small likelihood” that either teacher contracted the virus and exposed others, said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, who had no direct knowledge of this specific incident but thought it was “certainly not ideal” when informed by Chalkbeat of the timeline.
Because Test and Trace are supposed to protect the confidentiality of patients, it can be tricky to conduct investigations, she explained, noting that test results are first reported to the state health department, then are reported to the city. Still, the school should have quickly been notified and told within 24 to 48 hours there was “evidence” that someone tested positive.
City officials have said there is no evidence that the virus is transmitting at high rates in New York City schools. Over the past month, just 0.15% of the 86,614 students and staffers tested in schools received positive results, according to the latest city data. Despite that, it is “absolutely critical” to follow communication protocols, El-Sadr said.
“We know if [protocols] are followed, they can prevent possible transmission, and also it builds trust in the system,” said El-Sadr said.
Both teachers said that Test and Trace contacted them for the first time on Monday afternoon. Similar to the letter, Test and Trace told them they would only have to quarantine until Nov. 7 since that would be 14 days after they were last exposed to the student.
Despite their negative results, both teachers remain upset.
One wondered why the school was not informed immediately of the positive result. The other was angry that the school’s attendance team was unable to get in touch with the student sooner than Monday, given that the student had been absent for multiple days.
The school’s principal did not respond to an interview request.
“This is a dangerous oversight,” one of the teachers said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.