A Northeast Kingdom superintendent told families, students and staff in his district that the recent case surge put their schools in a tenuous position and threatened their ability to stay open.
Caledonia Central Superintendent Mark Tucker shared these thoughts in Tuesday message to the communities served by 7 schools - Barnet School, Cabot School, Danville School, Peacham School, Twinfield School, Walden School and Waterford School.
“We are teetering on the edge of some major school shutdowns because of community spread of COVID-19,” said Tucker. Tucker wrote that as of Monday morning the SU had recorded 46 cases among staff and students and all but 12 had occurred since March 3, the end of February break - however between the time he obtained the COVID report and writing his announcement that was released Tuesday morning an additional 6 cases were identified.
“Notably, with a couple of exceptions these infections are NOT due to in-school transmission,” said Tucker.
The Health Department and Agency of Education maintain a report tallying how many cases within schools are considered to be infectious while on campus. As of Sunday, CCSU had a total of 25 cases considered infectious while at school, including Barnet with 3 in the last week and 7 total, Cabot with 3 total, Danville with 3 in the last week and 13 total, Walden with 1 total and Waterford with 1 total. Peacham and Twinfield are reported to have had no cases involving an infectious person at school. Other cases among the school community members would not be included, for instance, if the community member had already been isolating when they became infectious and received their test results.
“Every time we learn of a positive case of COVID-19 affecting a staff member or student we meticulously review when the person was considered infectious, and who else they may have had contact within their school while they were infectious,” said Tucker. “As a result, we have had large numbers of staff and students - most especially in the past 2-3 weeks - who have been identified as ‘close contacts’ of an infected person.”
Tucker said many recent cases have been among people who were already quarantining due to an infected family member but that does not account for all the cases.
“However, there is a general sense in the health care and school communities that much of the recent spread is coming from people letting down their guard,” said Tucker. “Families are visiting other families, kids are visiting their friends, people are gathering in large groups outside, and in many cases not following distancing guidelines and/or wearing a mask. Why now, why so often?”
COVID-19 cases have already disrupted operations and school functions within CCSU. The district’s busing service was canceled last week because of cases and close contacts within the busing company staff, and the Danville High School girls basketball team had to withdraw from their berth in the state championship game because of cases among the team.
“I wonder if the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines is being misinterpreted as a sign that we don’t have to be careful,” said Tucker. “Or maybe it’s just that everyone is tired - tired of the pandemic, tired of living a more secluded life away from friends and families. If this is about vaccine availability, I will just remind you that there is NO approved vaccine for kids under 16 years of age, and we are seeing infections now in students as young as four years old.”
“More concerning to me is hearing people describe COVID-19 as ‘just the sniffles’,” said Tucker, noting the schools do not have discretion with how they handle positive cases and close contacts. “A positive case is a positive case, and we will continue to exclude all staff and students from school who are known to have COVID-19 or to have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19.”
“Our ability to maintain in-person instruction is being sorely tested right now. In the near term, we will continue to do whatever we can to support continued instruction for students who are quarantining at home because they are close contacts of someone who is infected,” said Tucker. “But I need to be clear that staying at home to quarantine is NOT the same thing as being a remote-only student. We do not have the flexibility to shift large numbers of students into and out of our remote-only instructional dispositions.”
Tucker said the schools had a provision to periodically decide to shift from remote instruction to in-person instruction based on family needs, but emergency transitions due to cases have put a strain on school capacity and given no opportunity to plan for the changing dynamics. “Another way to say this is the shift from in-person to remote instruction is not simply a matter of changing location.”
Tucker said his schools have had family requests to “go remote” for a couple of weeks because of the case surge.
“For those families who want to keep their kids home because there are so many cases right now, that is your right, but I have two thoughts to share,” said Tucker. “First, I understand and respect that people are nervous. But the infections we are seeing right now are coming from the wider community, not from the schools. Which leads me to my second thought: if you keep your kids out of school but allow them to gather in the community, unmasked and not distanced from their peers, well, this is worse than having them in school because you are risking exposure in exactly the place where it is rising now - outside the school. In school, masked and distanced is much safer than out of school, running free and sharing germs. This is not a criticism of your child-rearing decisions - it is just fact.”
Tucker said it is unclear whether April vacation next week will help the situation or make it worse.
“If the number of absences - of students and staff - continues to go up, we will reach that critical breaking point that I outlined back in October - the in-school instruction model will collapse completely under the weight of the remote-instruction demands, and we will be putting kids out of school who do not have the necessary family supports at home to be home,” said Tucker. “It is hard enough for our families when we have to put a grade or two out of school; closing the school entirely just multiplies the challenges for the community.”
“As challenging as these times are, I hope we can hang on to the ‘all in this together’ spirit that has carried us through the last year and put us in sight of a real finish line. The schools in CCSU - teachers, staff and administrators - are doing their part.”