DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) released new contract tracing guidelines for school districts, removing schools’ responsibility to contract trace and shifting it to each individual person.

School districts have a choice – to continue the universal contact tracing model or change it to an outbreak-based model. ODH and Miami Valley leaders said the suggestion is due to omicron spreading too quickly for previous tracing methods.

“Omicron is almost ubiquitous in our environment right now so this new guidance makes sense,” said Charles Patterson, health commissioner for Clark County Combined Health District.

ODH said their old guidance proved to be less impactful in preventing omicron spread and are hopeful many districts, if not all, will make the switch.

“The quick spread of omicron variant and its rapid clinical course in fact has made universal contact tracing and case investigation impractical and less impactful,” said ODH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.

ODH now encourages schools to follow a cluster or outbreak-based model for contract tracing in schools. School districts will limit exposure notifications to cases from outbreaks or clusters. The district would be emphasizing the “Mask to Stay, Test to Play” protocols, allowing an asymptomatic student to attend school while masked if they have been exposed to COVID-19. Starting February 4, schools will only report positive cases to local health departments once a week on Fridays.

“We’re not asking parents to guess where the exposure might be coming from, what we’re advising parents is that the exposure is everywhere,” said Dr. Vanderhoff.

The new guidance shifts contract tracing responsibility from school districts to each individual.

“By the time the laboratory reports it to us and we contact the people, the exposure notification can be over a week late, the people would just quarantine for a day or less, in many cases being told when quarantine periods were over, so this certainly makes sense,” said Patterson.

Many local school districts said the changes are a welcomed option.

“Our district has been saying for some time now that the contract tracing is something that has gotten pretty overbearing for our staff,” said Springboro Schools Public Information Officer Scott Marshall.

Marshall said transferring responsibility to students will be a huge burden lifted from staff members. He said many staff members were changing positions, leaving classes and overall burned out by tracing COVID-19 cases themselves. Masks are strongly recommended for students and staff but not required.

“I think this is good for everyone because this will take a huge burden off schools right now, a lot of schools are hemorrhaging because of this so this will definitely help alleviate that,” said Marshall.

Beavercreek City Schools require masking for everyone inside school buildings regardless of vaccination status so the new guidance is a welcomed addition to safety guidelines.

“We already have universal masking, so that doesn’t impact us a whole lot but most kids that can safely wear a mask are doing so, so we’re not doing a lot of contract tracing as is,” said Beavercreek City Schools Director of Student Services Jeff Madden.

Both state health leaders and local school districts said their goal is to keep kids learning in the classroom as safe as possible.

“There are still some students who have disabilities or medical conditions that a mask isn’t proper so we’ll work through those cases and work with them, with the possibility that those kids can still stay in school,” said Madden.

Therefore, effective immediately:

• The Ohio Department of Health recommends that local health departments (LHDs) shift from universal contact tracing, case investigation and exposure notification to a cluster[1]or outbreak-based model. This strategy prioritizes people in high-risk settings, such as congregate residential settings (e.g., shelters, correctional facilities, and nursing homes) or for certain circumstances such as outbreaks or clusters in specific settings or in relation to initial cases or clusters associated with new variants, as appropriate

• Schools may discontinue universal contact tracing but are expected to assist LHDs with contact tracing, case investigation and exposure notification related to outbreaks or clusters in schools as determined by the LHD. K-12 schools should continue to follow ODH’s protocol, “Mask to Stay, Test to Play,” and allow asymptomatic students to attend school while wearing a mask if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. The best place for kids is in school, in-person, full-time

• ODH also will change the school case reporting cadence to weekly. Schools should report positive student and staff cases to their LHDs by close of business on Fridays. LHDs will continue to report on the same weekly cadence. This schedule will begin on Friday, Feb. 4. ODH will continue to evaluate related school reporting requirements. LHDs should continue providing education and messaging to the general public about steps to take after exposure or a positive test. The attached flow chart may be shared with the public to explain how they should proceed after testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed to someone who has COVID-19. This is also a good time to remind the public of mitigation strategies that work against transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases