The Rookery recently conducted a survey of School Without Walls student opinions on DCPS contact tracing and exposure notification protocols, and the results were largely indicative of one phenomenon: some things need to change.
Roughly 11% of the student population responded to the Rookery’s poll, which asked them questions regarding close contact notifications and definitions as implemented by DCPS.
Respondents were first asked if they had ever been identified by DCPS as a close contact to a student who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 76.1% of respondents said they had not been. Then, respondents were presented with the DCPS close contact definition, which is on the ReopenStrong website as follows:
“A person in a school setting is considered a close contact if they are within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes within a 24-hour window within 2 days prior to illness onset or positive test result," but "students who are within 3 to 6 feet of another student for longer than 15 minutes are not considered a close contact if all students are consistently wearing well-fitting masks and other mitigating factors that part of DCPS’ health and safety measures are in place (physical distancing, increased ventilation, etc.)."
When respondents were asked if this definition was clear to them, 59.2%, a slim majority, said yes. However when survey-takers were asked if they thought that the original definition is a productive way of identifying close contacts in schools, an overwhelming 69% of them said no, with 19.7% choosing “I’m not sure” and just 11.3% saying that it is. Based on this definition, survey-takers were also asked if they felt that there was a time where they should have been notified about being a close contact, but were not identified as such. To this question, 63.4% of respondents voted yes, 23.9% said they weren’t sure, and 12.7% said no. On the inverse, respondents were asked if they felt that there was a time where they were identified as being a close contact, but did not meet the criteria. To this, 70.4% said no, 16.9% weren’t sure, and 12.7% said yes.
Next, respondents were presented with an update to DCPS’ contact tracing protocols, which the system posted on the same website on December 22nd. The update compliments the prior protocol and is as follows:
“To expedite notifications of positive reported cases at schools, close contact notifications will be sent to all students and staff in the classroom of a positive reported case if more detailed contact tracing cannot be completed expediently.”
To clarify an earlier set of results, the Rookery posed two more questions about being identified as a close contact. First, respondents were asked if they had been identified as such prior to December 22nd. 77.5% responded no, 22.5% yes. Then they were asked if they had been identified as a close contact after the 22nd. To this, 91.5% responded no, and 8.5% said yes.
The survey then asked two previous questions again, this time regarding the new addition to the close contact definition:
Based on this new update, do you feel that there is a time where you should have been notified about being a close contact, but you were not?
Results: 47.9% yes, 31% no, 21.1% unsure
Based on this new update, do you feel that there is a time where you were identified as being a close contact, but you did not meet the criteria above?
Results: 76.1% no, 18.3% unsure, 5.6% yes
In the last question regarding the new addition, respondents were asked if they thought that the new criteria of exposure notification was a good idea. Results were favorable towards DCPS: 77.5% responded yes, 22.5% responded no. After this question, the Rookery asked participants to elaborate if they wished. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, responded “no, because it creates unnecessary panic for what ends up being an extremely low risk situation for the majority of people in a classroom.”
A majority of the written responses to this question viewed the new addition in a more positive light. Carys Shepard, an 11th grader who responded “yes,” said, “I think that it's important to notify students if peers in their class contract COVID so that they know to get tested. In a lot of classes, we do not stay strictly confined to our seats, so it is possible that even someone who does not sit right next to you could be a close contact. Additionally, I think it's particularly important for students with underlying conditions or students who have immunocompromised relatives to know if they might have Covid.”
Finally, respondents were asked if individual schools within DCPS should have the agency to determine who is a close contact, other than who DCPS tells them is, if they deem it necessary. To this, an impressive 78.9% of survey-takers said yes, 15.5% said they were unsure, and only 5.6% said no.
After this question, respondents were again given a chance to elaborate if they wished. One anonymous respondent who said “yes,” noted that “[DCPS] isn’t in the same building with all of the students, they don’t know who interacts with who and when. Also things tend to be slow when it come[s] to thing[s] like that, like the time we [the school] had 17 confirmed cases and much of our class was missing, a lot of students already knew about the case before the email was sent out.”
An agreeing participant, who also elected to remain anonymous, said, “the way it is now, with the data having to go through bureaucracy, is really not beneficial for the health and well-being of teachers, students and staff. I think DCPS should be informed about cases, but individual schools have all the contact tracing information already and they can just alert people quickly, rather than being forced to wait while on the bureaucracy and have more people get sick, which is likely part of why so many people at school got sick before break (other than the parties, obviously).”
Students who selected that they were unsure of whether or not schools should have the autonomy noted that overreaching regulations from DCPS would be better for organizational purposes, but that schools should have the power to do the actual contact tracing themselves. Currently, the contact tracing is done downtown and sent back to the individual schools.
In all, student attitudes towards DCPS contact tracing are mixed, at best. Many students thought that the original criteria of notification was insufficient, but some have been satisfied by the new addition. But the real unifier was school autonomy. Walls students largely agree that individual schools should be allowed to do their own contact tracing.