When K-12 schools in Athens-Clarke County returned in August, new COVID-19 infections were approaching highs the county hadn’t seen since January 2021.
Athens, like much of the state, was in “the red zone” where transmission was extremely high, and before long, the first positive cases were reported within the Clarke County School District.
Recognizing a possible need for support, Grace Bagwell-Adams, who heads the Office of Outreach, Engagement, and Equity at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, made a quick call to CCSD Nursing Director Amy Roark.
The more we can join university activity with community benefit, the better we all become.” — Megan Bramlett
Two weeks later, eight public health students were on board, trained and ready to support the school district’s contact tracing team.
“Contact tracing is a critical component of stopping the spread – especially among those who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, living in an area with a low rate of vaccination and high rate of community transmission,” said Megan Bramlett, a public health doctoral student who helped to facilitate the collaboration by recruiting students and acting as point of contact. “This is a mutually beneficial relationship for CCSD, CPH students and the Athens-Clarke County community. The more we can join university activity with community benefit, the better we all become.”
Drastic increases in positive cases are difficult to keep up with, said Roark.
“CCSD has had approximately 750 positive cases reported since school started in August. Of course, the work is not in the positives, but rather in tracking and informing the close contacts. CCSD has been trying to make a personal phone call to everyone identified as a close contact, and that work quickly adds up as the case numbers increase. The UGA students have helped us be able to sustain the contact tracing efforts,” she said.
Public health students are working directly with the CCSD contact tracing team to make phone calls to parents of close contacts and enter COVID report forms when the schools are notified of a case. Students have also supported the critical work of educating parents on isolation and quarantine guidelines and providing resources for COVID testing in the Athens community, all while ensuring privacy.
“It’s important for everyone to be tested when they know that they have been in close contact so that we can reduce the spread of COVID,” said contact tracer Saher Dossani, a second-year health promotion student from Suwanee. “If people don’t know or have access to testing centers then we can help them gain access.”
“Each person we help will reduce the spread of COVID,” she said.
The speed with which this collaboration came together is a reflection of the relationship the College of Public Health has been building with the school district for years.
In 2019, public health students supported the school district in opening the first school-based health center in the region. The center provides comprehensive health care services to students at Gaines Elementary and Hilsman Middle schools, improving health care access for more than 1,200 children in Athens-Clarke County.
“Truly, [our partnership] is invaluable, and there are many opportunities for collaboration. The resources and assistance that CPH can offer CCSD will truly make an impact on the community health of Athens, which in the end, is the essence of public health work,” said Roark.