As schools and administrators across the region continue to grapple with the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in the Northeast Kingdom, St. Johnsbury School and St. Johnsbury Academy announced 10 additional cases had been identified within just those two school communities in recent days.
St. Johnsbury School Superintendent Brian Ricca announced early Monday afternoon that 7 new cases were identified within the K-8 school between Sunday and Monday. A little later Monday St. Johnsbury Academy sent the school community an update that 3 people within the high school community had received positive tests.
Ricca said of the 7 cases only 1 had been in school while considered infectious. As a result, Mrs. Taylor’s 3rd-grade class would shift to remote education until after April break, which begins this weekend. Recent cases have also forced the school to shift Mrs. Racenet’s 1st-grade class remote until after the break. Another 1st-grade class that was previously announced to go remote for the same time frame was able to return to class Monday.
Ricca also said the school is aware of three cases of in-school transmission that have occurred at St. Johnsbury School this school year.
“Given the rise of cases in our state and specifically in our region, we know there is community spread,” said Ricca. “We are confident the steps we are taking in school mitigates the risk of transmission and that being in school is best for our students and our families.”
Since February St. Johnsbury School has been transitioning from a hybrid operational model to full in-person education. Just last week the school introduced full in-person education to the 7th grade. Only the 8th grade remains hybrid at St. Johnsbury School.
Later Monday, SJA’s COVID Response Team announced it had learned of three additional cases from the high school community tested positive for COVID-19.
“We can share that the individuals were last physically on campus on January 21, March 26, and April 5,” stated SJA’s announcement. “The individual who was on campus [Monday] had no close contact with anyone in our Academy community while they were on campus, and left campus as soon as they were alerted that they had tested positive.”
SJA announced it had worked with the Vermont Department of Health to identify potential contacts and anyone considered a close contact of any of these cases is aware and quarantining.
“We are grateful for the quick work and collaboration of our staff in making this determination so quickly-because of their work, we feel confident continuing to stay together on campus,” the announcement stated. “When we physically distance, wear masks, wash hands, and stay home when sick, we are helping to assure that we are not ‘close contacts,’ and that means we can keep school going in person.”
These are just the latest of numerous cases that have been reported in area schools in the last several weeks. According to the most recent 7-day report of COVID-19 cases identified in schools while infectious 14 NEK schools had 38 infectious cases on campus, including: Barnet 2, Coventry Village 5, Craftsbury 2, Danville 6, Hazen 4, Irasburg 2, Lake Region 1, Lowell 1, Lyndon Institute 1, Lyndon Town School 2, North Country UHS 3, SJA 5, St. Johnsbury School 3, Troy 1. The report was released before the weekend and only reflects cases that are deemed to have been infectious while at school. Individual schools have announced many more cases among community members that had not been on campus during their infectious period. The most recent school report was the highest tally reported in weeks with 118 statewide.
On Friday, Agency of Education Secretary Dan French said the state was nearing completion of the first major overhaul of COVID-19 guidance for schools since last fall.
“We made progress this week on drafting an update for what will be a major and perhaps final revision of our Safe And Healthy Schools guidance,” said French. State officials said the revision will help schools operate in the remaining months of the school year when it is anticipated increasing vaccination rates will help schools return more fully to in-person education.
The state is adopting new guidance that only requires 3-feet of distancing between students, which many schools have said will be necessary to restore full in-person operations. French said new research has found there is no difference between 3 feet and 6 feet as a mitigation strategy and Europe and other areas in New England have been operating with 3 feet as the minimum. The distance was previously adopted for the lower grades but the new standard will now extend K-12.
“We have heard consistently from schools that the current 6-foot distancing requirement has been a barrier to their goal of implementing more in-person instruction,” said French. “By making this change in our guidance I expect we will see more schools move to full in-person instruction in the coming weeks.”
French said AOE is currently getting feedback on the new guidance and it is expected to be published this week.
Governor Phil Scott said despite elevated new case counts in recent weeks across the state, the state feels confident it can continue to implement changes in guidance because the state’s most important metrics, such as hospitalizations and now vaccination progress, are moving in the right direction.
A significant portion of recent cases has occurred within the 10-19 and 20-29 age bands in recent weeks.
The Northeast Kingdom has added 88 cases since Friday. Caledonia County reported 7 cases Friday, 19 cases Saturday and 6 cases Sunday. Caledonia County now has a total of 782 cases. Orleans County reported 14 cases Friday, 32 cases Saturday and 8 cases Sunday. Orleans now has a total of 982 cases. Essex reported just 2 cases on Saturday and now has a total of 216 cases.