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How Eagle Point High launched a COVID response

After learning about the COVID outbreak at Eagle Point High School this week, I wondered how the school could spread the word about its impending closure so quickly and finish contact tracing within a day.

— Reader

This is just one of several questions we received about a COVID-19 outbreak at Eagle Point High School that led to students getting the day off Wednesday. Another reader wanted to know how the district first became aware of the cases.

To break it all down, the SYA news team turned to Phil Ortega, who wears multiple hats in the Eagle Point School District. Ortega is the attendance and student services supervisor, but it’s his role as the district’s COVID response team coordinator that made him the ideal person to be peppered with EP COVID questions.

According to Ortega, the district learned last Sunday that two students had tested positive for COVID-19, then learned of two more cases Tuesday, the last coming in at 5:27 p.m. Realizing that they did not have enough time to complete contact tracing for the final case, administrators and Jackson County Public Health decided to cancel school at EPHS Wednesday.

Ortega said of those four cases, one was reported to the school by a parent, one by a student and two by the local health authority. Since September, he added, about a third of the COVID-19 cases reported to the district came from the local health authority, a third were reported by parents and a third by the students themselves.

To quickly get the word out to families that school was canceled Wednesday, teams were formed, each tasked with a specific responsibility. One team drafted letters (English and Spanish) that were sent out to families, another canceled transportation, another canceled food services. The district also used its website and Facebook account, as well as its School Messenger phone system — the same auto-message system used to notify families when school is canceled due to inclement weather — to let families know.

The district completed contact tracing Wednesday with the help of 20 staff members, including teachers who had the infected students in their classrooms. Each student has a maximum of four classes each day.

“Every staff member has a seating chart,” Ortega said. “So let’s say Joe was identified as a COVID case. I can see who’s in front, who’s behind and who’s adjacent to Joe, and because they had (a maximum of) four classes, the impact could be somewhere between four to seven per class based on the layout of the classroom.”

The nature of the class also figures into the contact tracing effort, Ortega explained. While the seating charts are useful, they won’t help much if the class in question happened to be working on a science experiment that day, or building an engine in shop class, or receiving one-on-one tutoring in the library.

“Doing the contact tracing takes deliberate time to track people’s movements,” Ortega said.

Not every student who comes into contact with a positive case is held out of school, Ortega added. According to guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinated students may return to in-person instruction under such circumstances so long as they aren’t exhibiting symptoms.

In the end, 77 students (and zero staff members) were asked to quarantine following the outbreak. The school has an average daily attendance of about 950 students.

“I’m proud of how our system and our staff are quick to respond,” Ortega said, “and all our efforts are aligned to keeping students and staff safe in our learning environment.”

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com.