To deal with COVID cases, schools to hire contact tracers, additional nurse

Posted 9/9/21

As COVID-19 cases create time-consuming burdens in local schools, several temporary employees will be hired to provide some relief for staff in Park County School District 1.

During a special …

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To deal with COVID cases, schools to hire contact tracers, additional nurse


As COVID-19 cases create time-consuming burdens in local schools, several temporary employees will be hired to provide some relief for staff in Park County School District 1.

During a special meeting Tuesday evening, the school board unanimously approved hiring three contact tracers and an additional school nurse, all on a temporary basis. In addition, the board agreed to temporarily boost substitute teachers’ pay in an effort to attract subs.

“When this school year started, we had a number of positive [COVID] cases walk in the door very early — the first day,” Superintendent Jay Curtis said. “And every day since then, it has taken a tremendous amount of time by our school nurses and a tremendous amount of time by administrators to trace our students through the day.”

The district didn’t have contact tracers on staff last year, but the positions are needed this year, Curtis said.

“For whatever reason, kids are contracting COVID at a much higher rate this year than they were last year,” Curtis said in a Wednesday interview, adding that he assumes it’s the Delta variant of the virus, but doesn’t know that for sure.

The number of students and staff in isolation or quarantine due to COVID has tapered off since the first two weeks of the school, Curtis said.

While Powell schools are following similar mitigation measures as last year — including social distancing — there is no mask mandate this year.

“I think the key difference is, when everyone is wearing masks, the contact tracing rules are such that if both of us are masked and I’m positive [for COVID], then you don’t have to quarantine,” Curtis said. “So it limited the number of quarantines.”

The district started this year without masks, and the superintendent said he still supports that. 

“I can’t speak for the board, but many of them have made it clear that they really value people having choices in this,” he said.

Some staff and students are choosing to wear masks, particularly among students at Powell High School, Curtis said.

At the middle school and high school levels, contact tracing takes a lot of time when someone tests positive for COVID. 

“They change classes seven to nine times a day, so … you have to trace the movement of that kid, and everyone that they sat by for more than 15 minutes, for the entire school day,” Curtis said. “It’s intricate work.”

Administrators are spending upwards of five hours a day on contact tracing, and “having a difficult time getting out and fulfilling their other duties,” the superintendent said Tuesday.

School nurses also do contact tracing, but like administrators, they have many other responsibilities — including caring for students with specific medical needs.

Employees were getting “awfully worn out” trying to juggle all of their responsibilities with contact tracing, Curtis said.

“... we’ve got to do everything we possibly can to preserve our people so that learning can occur at a high level” throughout the school year, he said.

One contact tracer will be hired to handle cases at Powell High School, while a second will focus on Powell Middle School. The third will share duties with the elementary schools.

At the elementary level, students are more self-contained, so there’s less movement and fewer people to trace.

Contact tracers will work between 20-40 hours each week and receive $20 per hour. To cover the costs, there is a special grant through the state and federal COVID relief funding could potentially be used, Curtis said.

Trustee Don Hansen said $20 an hour “seems plenty high” and asked the superintendent how that rate compared with paraeducators’ pay or other positions.

Curtis said there’s no question that the contact tracers will be making more money than other employees.

“However, I think most people would say that it’s an unpleasant job to do,” he continued. “And so we’re trying to attract people to want to do it, and typically, the amount that you can pay them is the attraction.”

Because of the labor shortage, he added that the hope is to attract people immediately, “because the need is immediate.”

 As temporary employees, contact tracers will not receive benefits and they will remain on staff only as long as needed this school year.


Temporary boost in sub pay

In hopes of attracting more substitute teachers, the board also unanimously approved a temporary boost in the hourly rate for subs.

“We are already struggling to find substitutes,” Curtis said. “We found ourselves in this position early last year; we find ourselves in this position again.”

Districts around the Big Horn Basin are reporting similar substitute shortages, he added, and Powell shares its substitutes among surrounding districts. 

“Because we know that there are people that bounce around from district to district, we wanted to give them an incentive to come to Powell,” Curtis said.

Last fall, Park 1 bumped certified substitute teachers’ pay to $17 per hour. In an effort to promote longevity, the district paid subs who reach 40 hours an additional 50 cents per hour.

Curtis recommended keeping the base rate at $17, but boosting pay by $2 per hour once a certified substitute teacher reaches 40 hours in the school year, taking them to $19 per hour.

The superintendent stressed that his recommendation was subject to available grants, as the district plans to use state funding specifically aimed at helping with substitute shortages; there are also federal COVID relief funds available.

“We do not want a permanent increase to sub pay,” Curtis said, adding that it will be advertised to substitutes as temporary COVID relief. 

In addition, the district is encouraging paraeducators to get their substitute certification so they can serve in that capacity. 

“We’re at the point right now where we’re having to make considerations on whether or not to approve personal leave for people because there are so many taking sick leave,” he said.

The temporary bump in pay is the first step in a multi-faceted approach of trying to improve the sub pool, Curtis said.

“Hopefully this will help bring a little relief to the buildings out there,” Chairman Trace Paul said.


Additional school nurse

The board also unanimously approved hiring a full-time temporary school nurse for the 2021-22 school year.

“... Our nurses have been overwhelmed,” Curtis said Tuesday. “I think the contact tracers will certainly help, but we have a lot of student need in the district right now.”

Currently, a substitute school nurse is filling in, Curtis said, but that help ends later this month.

“The need is great,” the superintendent said.

Curtis told the board that he is studying nursing levels at school districts around the state, and plans to discuss long-term staffing needs with the board in coming months.

“It seems like everybody’s looking for nurses,” Trustee Hansen said.

Curtis said he’s not sure if the district will get any applicants for the temporary nurse position, and if not, “we may have to up our timeline of examining permanent staff.”

He added that there is funding available through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund for additional nurses.

The superintendent also said he’s thankful school board members recognize the toll COVID is taking on some employees and “are willing to take bold actions to make sure they’re taking care of our people and taking care of our kids.”

“This is a dynamic and ever-changing situation with regard to COVID,” Curtis said Wednesday. “As a school district, our primary responsibility is to make sure kids are learning at high levels, and I think the board demonstrated last night that they’re willing to make adjustments on the fly to make sure that our district is providing our schools with the tools to help keep kids in school, and to support our staff.”


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