Contact-tracing begins after positive virus case at school

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The expected has happened: Someone in Williston’s schools has tested positive for the coronavirus. 

The Champlain Valley School District was one of five districts in the state that had to notify its community of a positive test last week. According to Superintendent Elaine Pinckney, the person who tested positive has not been inside Williston schools since Oct. 2. Notification to families came Sunday.

“We only learned late Saturday evening that we had a positive case,” Pinckney said Monday in an email to the Observer. “We worked for several hours with the Vermont Department of Health team late Sunday afternoon … We sent out letters as soon as we were able.”

She said she couldn’t speak to when the positive test result occurred, but that the Oct. 2 date establishes a timeline for quarantining any close contacts.

“Due to medical privacy laws, we can not provide any additional information about this case,” she wrote in the notification letter. “We ask our community for compassion and understanding for all who may be impacted by this virus.” 

On Tuesday, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said his department is investigating positive cases tied to five schools in the state. He noted that transmission of the virus did not happen inside the schools in any of the cases.

“The school-associated cases are among people who have been exposed to the virus in the community, outside of school,” Levine said. 

The health department investigation in Williston began Monday with phone calls to anyone who may have been in close contact with the person who tested positive. Contact tracing was due to be complete by the first half of this week.

“If you have not been contacted, it is because your child is not a close contact,” Pinckney wrote.

Williston schools opened the school year with a hybrid schedule, with half the student body in school two days a week and the other half in school a different two days — keeping school buildings at half capacity to maintain recommended physical distance. Students are learning remotely during the three days a week they are not in school. 

Last Monday, the school district pivoted to allow kindergarteners into school buildings full time and is working toward doing the same for grades 1-4. The positive coronavirus case has not derailed those plans, Pinckney said.

“We will continue to carefully monitor our success in bringing more students back, and would not hesitate to push the pause button if there were any reason to do so,” she said. “The health and safety of our students and our faculty and staff is job one.”

A portion of the district’s notification letter to families echoed word-for-word the notification sent to Essex families, suggesting it was prepared by state officials in anticipation of positive coronavirus cases in schools: “While we certainly hoped that we would remain COVID-free, we expected this eventuality and we are prepared with a plan to respond to it. Our team (has) met with the Vermont Department of Health to plan our response. We are confident that we’ve shared all critical information with the Vermont Department of Health and that they are poised to follow up with all potentially close contacts.”