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Over the past two years, Lake Oconee Academy (LOA), a PK-12 public charter school in Greensboro, GA, has partnered with ESE Telehealth to practice a range of strategies dealing with COVID that have proven particularly effective in terms of both promoting community health and keeping students engaged in school and learning as much as possible. 

The approach evolved this fall to include new telehealth options, offered in partnership with ESE Telehealth, and an on-campus health clinic that has enabled LOA to efficiently diagnose and test students and staff on site and to safely have more people remain on campus. 

LOA’s Evolving Approach – Striving to Keep Students and Staff on Campus 

LOA’s approach to COVID has evolved significantly since March 2020, when Governor Kemp issued a shelter-in-place order. Like many other schools, LOA shifted quickly that spring to virtual instruction for all students. When returning to school in Autumn 2020, the school offered students and families the choice of returning to campus or continuing with virtual instruction; teachers taught bimodally, with some students physically present in class and others simultaneously connected synchronously via Zoom. 

“The year began with roughly one in three students off campus and ended with approximately 95 percent back on campus,” said CEO, Dr. Otho Tucker. 

The school followed guidance from the Governor’s Office, the GA Department of Public Health (DPH), the GA Department of Education (Ga DOE), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding contact tracing, isolation, quarantine, and related protocols for COVID cases and contacts. 

“While helping to keep our school community safe, teaching and learning were challenged by the shifting of students and staff on and off campus. LOA decided that changes were necessary, including requiring that all students return to campus for in-person instruction, and developed new policies and protocols for the 2021-22 school year in line with DPH guidelines and administrative/executive orders from Governor Kemp,” said Tucker. 

While the basic timeframes for isolation and quarantine related to COVID cases and exposures remain unchanged, the new protocols and systems included:

  1. Options for on-campus testing for multiple ailments (including COVID, flu, and strep)
  2. On-campus virtual support from licensed nurse practitioners
  3. A new on-campus option for students exposed to COVID, so they do not need to shift off campus and quarantine at home – unless they become symptomatic and/or test positive. 

As part of LOA’s partnership with ESE Telehealth, the school has been able to administer highly accurate rapid COVID tests, with just a short swab in the lower nostril (not the more invasive procedure that goes farther up the nose). With only a 10-minute turnaround, these tests offer 99% accuracy on negative tests and 85% on positive tests. 

As part of the ESE Telehealth system, LOA also has been reporting results electronically, which are readily transferable to the primary care physicians of our families. This testing option is approximately half the cost of other testing options, with the cost billed directly to insurance, Medicaid (which will not impact any medical benefits), or paid onsite with cash or check. Parents/guardians are contacted before a student is tested and may be present for the testing – either virtually or in person. Diagnoses can be accompanied by prescriptions, making it a convenient, efficient, and cost-effective system for expanding and improving health care for the school community. 

In terms of new protocols associated with C0VID, the key elements are as follows: 

  • Positive Cases – continue to isolate for 10 days, Zooming in to classes synchronously while isolating and then returning to in-person, on-campus instruction on Day 11;
  • Symptomatic Students – are seen by LOA’s nursing staff and can consult a Telehealth practitioner, and then test if it is deemed necessary, with positive cases isolating and negative cases being addressed accordingly (including sent off-campus for fevers, etc.);
  • Exposed Unvaccinated Students – have a choice to either (A) quarantine for 7 to 10 days

(depending upon testing, with a negative test on Days 5-7 permitting an earlier return on Day 8) and Zoom in to classes synchronously or (B) remain on campus for in-person instruction if asymptomatic while being both masked and physically distanced from other students, with on­-campus testing available on Days 5-7, which could shorten the masking and distancing to Day 8 (as with the off-campus quarantine version);

  • Exposed Vaccinated Students – will continue to be permitted to remain on campus for in-person instruction as long as they are masked for 14 days, or without masks if they test negative after Day 3.

Preliminary Results and Working lessons from LOA’s New Approach 

Tucker says LOA is still gathering and processing quantitative data related to teaching and learning, but knows that most students learn more and do better academically if they are on campus. “With more students on campus every day, LOA is better able to serve them and meet their educational needs.”

“Preliminary observations and working expectations are that both attendance and performance data will be better this year, with these new systems in place and with more students on campus, than last year, when the school had no on-site clinic or testing capacity and students were forced to quarantine off campus,” said Tucker.

Beyond these attendance and academic benefits, LOA already can conclude that these new systems are benefiting students, families, and staff in additional ways: 

  • Students on campus are gaining invaluable access to crucial social-emotional development by interacting in person with other students;
  • The health and well-being of students is much easier to monitor if students are on campus, with services and support also easier to provide once needs are identified;
  • Students on campus can be fed through school nutrition programs;
  • Students on campus provide more flexibility for working families, especially those with younger children.

Ultimately, offering convenient, efficient, and cost effective health care options on campus increases the likelihood of students and staff using them, thus improving community health, while simultaneously reducing the time students and staff need to be off campus for medical appointments and lab testing, which decreases academic disruptions and increases instructional time. Even receiving a negative test result can provide emotional relief and be an additional benefit. 

“While LOA saw early the potential benefits in telehealth, we wanted an innovative and comprehensive provider that was looking futuristically at telehealth and that could offer a full complement of services, including for mental and emotional health, as well as COVID and day-to-day medical issues,” said Tucker. “We also wanted a provider who would train the LOA staff to use telehealth to its ultimate potential and who would be responsive, understanding that the benefits were to be able to treat patients quickly, efficiently, and properly. Finally, it was most important that the system be able to benefit all our students, which made the relationship between our provider and medicaid/medicare paramount.” 

Tucker says that after considering different options ESE Telehealth met all of their standards. “The training, support, and services have been foundational to our success.”

By partnering with ESE Telehealth and putting these new systems in place, Tucker says LOA is better able to serve their students and meet their health, social, emotional, and educational needs. 

“All of us at LOA stand ready to share more information about these new systems, their positive impacts, and their widespread applicability.”

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