CDC hoping to learn lessons from Springfield-area school districts to help nationwide pandemic fight

Published: Mar. 8, 2021 at 7:00 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) -Springfield has already been in the national spotlight for a COVID-19 outbreak at a Great Clips shop that proved the importance of masking in preventing the virus’ spread.

Now the area is playing an important role again, this time in determining how schools should deal with the illness thanks to a project being done by the CDC.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is our nation’s health institute that tries to research, control and eradicate threats to our health and safety. Started in 1946 in Atlanta to deal with a malaria outbreak, the CDC has gone to war against a number of threats over the ensuing decades from polio and measles to smoking and Ebola.

And now they’re current facing one of their bigger challenges in COVID-19.

One of the CDC’s efforts to learn more about this mysterious illness has them partnering with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, Washington University in St. Louis and three Springfield-area school districts to learn more about COVID-19 transmission in schools by utilizing contact tracing and case investigation that involves free testing to certain students chosen by the districts.

“We have a team from the CDC that’s currently in Springfield,” said Johanna Salzer, an Epidemiologist with the CDC who’s on the COVID-19 response team. “This specific work is only being done in Missouri.”

As to why Springfield was chosen?

“One of the main reasons we’re in Springfield is for the cashew chicken,” she said with a laugh.

But what really brought them to the Ozarks was the positive way the Springfield Public School system was handling the pandemic.

“One reason specifically we were interested is that (Springfield) schools are offering a modified quarantine to students, which means if the students meet certain criteria after their in-school exposure, they may be able to continue in-person learning,” Salzer explained. “So the CDC is interested to learn more about modified quarantine, how it’s working here in this area, and if it’s a potential way other areas could use it to keep kids in-person learning during their quarantine period.”

The CDC started the pilot project last December with Springfield and three schools in St. Louis county and it was so successful that the project was brought back seven weeks ago and expanded in both scope and numbers. Republic and Logan-Rogersville have been added in the Springfield-area and the CDC is looking at how the districts are taking on the overall challenge.

“Transmission in (those) schools is actually lower than the community,” Salzer said. “So there’s a lot that’s happening that’s right in this area. We’re interested in learning not just about modified quarantine but also mitigation measures like mask use and social distancing.”

“And how we need students moving through the hallways and where we need to put hand washing stations,” added Lee Ann Neill, the SPS Health Services Coordinator who’s been working closely with the CDC. “Putting children in pods and having them work with common learning partners and seating charts, even on buses. We’ve had to rethink all those different aspects of the day and then realize it was all worth it because it really does work. And there are so many districts that aren’t at the point Springfield is in terms of having students in-seat. The Springfield-Greene Co. Health Department has been so forward-thinking and from day one we’ve been looking at what we’re learning as we’re moving through the changes in this pandemic. The health department has been the backbone of this entire process.”

The project has also evolved into tracing the genetics of the virus with the CDC testing some students who’ve had the illness.

“So if you are a parent of a student, teacher or staff that received that call from either someone from the CDC or Washington University, you’re volunteering or participating in this work really does add to the body of science,” Salzer said.

Just as the Great Clips results were used in a nationwide study to show that masks work, so will the information gathered in the CDC’s school project be used down the road in helping educators across the country.

“The science that’s generated here will be a part of the national conversation about what the recommendations are going forward,” Salzer said.

“It’s overwhelming to think that right here in the Midwest, you think of things coming from the coasts and rolling inward, and yet we really are forward thinking and are on the cusp of some of the things that are really helping other communities,” Neill added.

The CDC plans on being in town for another couple of weeks.

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