Who notifies MPS students that they should quarantine? Family's story highlights confusion within system

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Who is supposed to notify students in Milwaukee Public Schools when they need to quarantine? One mother brought her concerns to CBS 58, and her story uncovered confusion within different agencies.

This week, Angela Holder got a call from the Milwaukee Health Department about her daughter, who is an eighth grader at Rufus King Middle School.

"They said there was a positive case in one of her classes, and that she should have quarantined from the second to the 16th," Holder said.

Holder said she and her daughter developed symptoms this week.

She said she's upset the school district never notified her about the positive case. But Deputy Superintendent Calvin Fermin said that's the district's policy.

He said after a school has a positive case, the district sends a letter to families and staff to notify them. They only have to quarantine if they're deemed "close contacts," meaning within six feet of the positive case for more than 15 minutes.

However, there seems to be confusion over who is supposed to notify families that they need to quarantine.

"The Milwaukee Health Department would do those close contacts and notifications," Fermin told CBS 58 during an interview on Sept. 16.

"So you would never do that?" CBS 58 reporter Rose Schmidt asked Fermin.

He responded, "We would never do the direct contact of quarantining for those students. That would be the Milwaukee Health Department."

That is consistent with MPS' Return to the Classroom Family Guide, which states: "children identified as close contacts to a positive case will be contacted by the local health department and given instructions to quarantine at home."

However, it is not consistent with what a spokesperson from the Milwaukee Health Department told CBS 58 on Thursday, Sept. 16:

"The Milwaukee Health Department provides contact tracing services for all identified positive COVID-19 cases. It is up to the school’s identified COVID-19 Coordinator or MPS nurses to inform close contacts of a positive COVID-19 cases if they need to quarantine."

On Friday, Sept. 17, a spokesperson from the Milwaukee Health Department sent further clarification information to CBS 58, which said a school is obligated to notify the health department of a positive case and identify students who are close contacts. The spokesperson said those students should be immediately quarantined, and the school should send notices home. MPS also sends the list of contacts to the health department, which makes additional phone calls to the families. The department gives every positive case or close contact information about how to reach the department if they have questions.

MPS' Return to the Classroom Family Guide also says staff who are identified as close contacts to a positive case will be contacted by the MPS nursing team and given instructions.

Holder also believes her daughter should have been told to quarantine much sooner. She said the health department first notified her on Tuesday, Aug. 14, two days before the quarantine period was set to end on Aug. 16.

"She's been at school every single day. How many people has she been around? I don't even know the places that she's been or places dad's taken her or grandma's taken her," Holder said. "She should have been quarantined. How many people do you think that she's been around and possibly infected?"

CBS 58 asked Fermin about this.

"In that situation, do you feel like there's a possibility that by families not being notified sooner, it could be putting the community at risk?" Schmidt asked Fermin.

Fermin responded, "We definitely don't think that that's the appropriate way to do it. We monitor our protocols regularly so we would be meeting with the Milwaukee Health Department to determine what was the process failure in this case to make sure that they're notified properly, if that was the case."

Holder also said she feels the administration at her daughter's school didn't take her concerns seriously. 

Fermin said it's discussing this situation both internally and with the Milwaukee Health Department.

"We will review this case in particular to determine: Was there anything that was missed? Is there anything needed on our end?" Fermin said.

CBS 58 also reached out to the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association about Holder's situation. MTEA Executive Director Ben Ward issued a statement saying, "The CDC’s 3-foot, masked close contact exception for students is likely why many students will not be considered close contacts. However, the CDC recommends that local health authorities - like the Milwaukee Health Department – should act to increase levels of protection in periods of high transmission. When Milwaukee first entered extreme transmission seven weeks ago, MTEA asked the Milwaukee Health Department for elevated mitigation protocol beyond CDC guidelines including student and staff contact tracing, testing, isolation as well as a citywide mask mandate. Seven weeks later, we are still in extreme transmission and MHD has refused to do anything."

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