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Cobb schools discontinue contact tracing after state updates COVID guidelines

The district said they encourage families to make health decisions that are best for them and to not send students to school sick.

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Cobb County Schools said contact tracing for COVID-19 will no longer be part of its pandemic health and safety protocols, according to the district. The move comes after Gov. Brian Kemp informed school leaders of updated guidelines.

Contact tracing generally includes notifying people who have come into close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency said it is a way to help slow the spread of the virus.

A release from the school system specifies that the changes come "per communication received by all Georgia school districts on 01/05/2022 from Gov. Brian Kemp and the Georgia Department of Public Health."

11Alive received a copy of a letter dated Jan. 6 signed by Kemp and DPH Commissioner Kathleen Toomey about isolation and quarantine protocols. 

The letter mentions how it has become "more challenging as cases have increased in schools and throughout the community." The statement added that "while contact tracing is a 'best practice,' particularly for high-risk individuals, we understand that this may not always be possible in all cases and so can be considered as an optional service in schools at this time."

Cobb County School Board Member for Post 2, Dr. Jaha Howard, said he found out about this protocol change during Thursday's board meeting.

"I'm learning about the new protocols as we speak, after days of trying to communicate with our board leadership," he said. "We haven't received any information after asking for it and we find out today at the very, very, very end of the meeting, that we have brand new protocol protocols."

Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale brought it up in the meeting right before adjourning, and did not ask for feedback or comments. 

The protocol change was not scheduled in the agenda, which is another reason why Dr. Howard was taken aback.

"It was a an item that was slipped into the agenda," he said. "There was no discussion. Nothing. Just some verbal remarks and adjourn. Unfortunately, our board is having a habit of having very little conversation, little to no parent and community input. It shows a sense of arrogance that is really just concerning. Troubling."

Parents 11Alive spoke to both on-camera and off-camera agree.

"It scares me a lot, especially because I, myself am high risk," said Taylor Heaney. "I've been home for like two years straight. I have family members who are also very high risk. It's really concerning, it's really frightening, actually."

Taylor Heaney has a son who is in a special needs preschool program. Due to his age, he is not yet eligible for the vaccines.

"He's nonverbal, so any information that we get comes directly from the school and directly from the teacher," she said. "So we depend on that contact tracing. It's frightening, especially because he's too young to be vaccinated, too. So, you know, that's our only safety."

She said parents found out through an email sent out Thursday. The first day back to school was Wednesday. 

"It puts our kids and our families directly in the line of fire," she added. "I really feel like as parents, we're kind of asking for the bare minimum right now. We're not even asking them to implement mask mandates, because we kind of gave up that fight at the beginning of the year. For me, contact tracing and isolation periods and quarantining for positive cases was kind of our last line of defense."

She said this decision was made with zero parent input.

"We are just being silenced at every turn," Heaney said.

The update also allows educators to be included in the group of workers who can return to work after being exposed to the virus regardless of their vaccination status. According to the guidance, it should be "if their employer deems it necessary to ensure adequate staffing." However, this guideline is for people who were exposed and are asymptomatic, wear a mask at work, and comply with other quarantines requirements, according to the letter.

For Cobb County, masks are strongly encouraged but ultimately optional for all students as staff, so long as they have not been exposed. 

While Cobb will not continue contact tracing for all suspected and confirmed cases, the school district said they will "encourage families to make health decisions which are best for their families and to not send students too sick." 

The district said any student or staff member testing positive for COVID will still be required to isolate, according to guidelines from the Department of Public Health

Quarantine guidance for Cobb includes allowing students who are asymptomatic to be able to return to class immediately if their parents choose to let them do so. Students must wear a mask for seven days after exposure, according to the district. Students showing symptoms after being exposed will need to quarantine and follow the isolation guidelines.

Asymptomatic staff wearing a mask can immediately return to work if they are exposed to the virus. 

State officials also announced that it will be offering a new COVID testing program which "allows for the testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic students, staff, faculty, and their family members." The program will be completely voluntary.

Furthermore, the release adds that students who show COVID symptoms in school clinics may be asked to mask up or be isolated, and volunteers and parents will be allowed into buildings at the discretion of the principal.

Further information on the school district's new guidelines can be viewed here.