7NEWS Investigation: Tracking Classroom COVID-19 cases

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(WSPA) – An unrecognized symptom of COVID may be sleep deprivation, not for the people who have it, but for those who try to stop its spread.

It’s pushing our school staff to the brink.

7News been reporting on the thousands of Upstate kids quarantined from their classrooms but can now show the exact toll it’s taking on school administrators and staff.

Kate Malone, the principal at Riverside Middle School, had one full time job before COVID. Now she has at least two.

Asked, how many hours are you working each day, Malone said, “Wow. Probably 14 to 15 every day. Including weekends.”

Middle schools, like Riverside in Greenville County, are at full capacity this year. Social distancing is nearly impossible. Students change classes 6 periods a day and each classroom is full.

It means a single student infected with COVID-19 may interact closely with dozens of peers, each of whom may need to quarantine under state law.

“Yesterday I think I spent 10 hours with one positive case. There’s a lot of pieces to keep all the kids at school who should be at school and, at the same time, protect all the people that may have been exposed to COVID,” Malone said.

The school usually learns about an infected student from a parent.

What happens next is a matter of law and math.

A sick child isolates at home and won’t come back for at least 7 to 10 days after symptoms start or a positive test.

The hard part is what comes next.

School staff goes back in time, to retrace that students activities in the 48 hours before the illness began.

Principals, like Malone, pull seating charts in every class the student attended, identifying close contacts within 3 to 6 feet, depending on who wears a mask. Which itself is an investigation.

Administrators retrace bus routes, sometimes reviewing video, for close contacts.

Plus, they review any extra-curricular clubs or sports. And each of the dozens of identified students gets a phone call from Malone or her staff, enforcing a quarantine for another 7 to 10 days.

“I was very surprised. I think the delta variant, as you’ve heard, snuck up on us. It’s very contagious and, yeah, I’m surprised at the number of cases in children specifically,” said Greenville County Schools Medical Director Janet Lage.

At the district level, each of those cases is tracked by student ID in a massive spreadsheet.

Each line identifies date of exposure and safe date of return for an individual student.

There are some kids listed multiple times from multiple exposures and quarantines.

The data is so massive, it’s backlogged. That’s the reason the district’s COVID dashboard has, at times, fallen days behind.

Lage supervises both her staff and new contract employees, playing COVID catch up for the district’s 77,000 students.

They’re working double shifts and weekends to stay afloat.

“The impact on me, it’s strengthens my desire to improve our process. COVID doesn’t seem to be going away,” Lage said.

At Riverside, in the first month of school, staff placed individual quarantine calls to the parents of more than 400 students, roughly a third of the entire student body.

While teachers, also pushed to the brink, develop at home assignments for the kids forced out of class.

“There is a capacity, a threshold, for every person and every object and, you know, there’s a crisis mode and principals, in particular, are very good in a crisis. We’re the people you want in a crisis. We’re calm, we communicate well, we will lead you through it, and we may even make you feel good about it at the end,” Malone said.

“But we’re past a crisis now and this kind of our new way of being and that crisis mode can only last so long you can only be at that threshold for so long and we’re probably at capacity on that.”

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