As K-12 schools resume in-person learning, school administrators must be prepared to respond quickly when someone with COVID-19 has been in the school or at a school event. In these instances, case investigation and contact tracing serve as important strategies for reducing the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Case investigation is the process that helps a person who has COVID-19 recall everyone they have had close contact with during the timeframe they may have been able to spread the virus to other people. Contact tracing is the process of notifying the identified exposed individuals (close contacts) of their potential exposure. They are most effective when implemented in combination with other prevention strategies.
Contact tracing is used to provide instructions and support to people who have COVID-19 and their close contacts. Timely and complete contact tracing can help to quickly isolate people who have COVID-19, and to identify their close contacts so that those contacts can quickly take actions (such as quarantine, testing, and wearing a mask) to prevent any further spread of the virus. This can slow spread in schools (and in the community) and help prevent school closures due to large-scale outbreaks. For contact tracing to be effective, schools need protocols to quickly identify people with COVID-19 and determine their close contacts. The process requires timely action and cooperation by everyone involved in the confidential investigation of cases of COVID-19 and notification of their close contacts.
Core principles of case investigation and contact tracing
- Case investigation is part of the process to support people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 (cases).
- People who have COVID-19 are given information and support to know what to do if they are sick, how to safely isolate and separate themselves from others who are not infected, when to seek emergency medical attention, and how to avoid spreading the virus to others.
- In case investigation for K-12 settings, designated staff (e.g., from a public health agency, school, or district) work with a person who has COVID-19 to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe while they may have been infectious.
- Designated staff then begin contact tracing by confidentially notifying the exposed individuals (close contacts) of their potential exposure as rapidly as possible.
- To protect privacy, close contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a person with COVID-19. They are not told the identity of the person with COVID-19 who identified them as a close contact.
- Close contacts are provided with information and support to understand their risk, how to monitor themselves for symptoms, and what steps they need to take, such as quarantine, or testing and wearing a mask, depending on their vaccination status. It also is important to help them understand that they could spread the virus to others even if they are not experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
Process for responding to COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools
This step-by-step process is intended to serve as a guide for a school administrator’s response to a COVID-19 case in their school or at a school event. It includes links to resources and tools that can be tailored for local use and, in some cases, can be shared directly with students, their families, and staff.
This process starts when a school becomes aware of someone within the school community who has COVID-19. Schools may find out about people having COVID-19 in a number of ways, including through parent reports to the school, self-reports from students or staff, or screening testing conducted by the school. To ensure that schools know about COVID-19 cases, it is important to encourage staff, students, and their families to report to the school anytime staff, students, or others who have been in the school or at a school event test positive for COVID-19. Once a school is aware of a COVID-19 case within the school or at a school event, the school should take the following steps in response: