Following a week that saw record numbers of positive COVID-19 cases reported statewide — and with case rates not anticipated to decrease anytime soon, according to state projections — K-12 schools are feeling the strain.
On Monday, the state reported 222 new cases of COVID, with 52 hospitalizations, including 11 in intensive care.
The latest state data showed that cases increased 42% over the previous seven days and increased 55% over the previous 14 days.
School-related data from Nov. 8, showed 217 new cases of COVID in K-12 schools in the previous seven days, for a total of 1,502 cases in schools since the beginning of the school year.
As of Nov. 3, case rates were highest among 0-11 year olds, with 45.6 cases per 10,000.
In Rutland County, which saw 39 new cases of COVID Monday for a 14-day total of 692 — the second-highest in the state behind Chittenden County — a number of students, faculty and staff are out of the classroom and in quarantine.
All five schools in the Mill River Unified Union School District were closed Monday to allow for contact tracing, which Superintendent David Younce characterized as “expansive” in a message to the community.
Younce said in an interview that the district has six active cases spread across three schools, with 73 students and nearly 30 staff identified as close contacts. As a result, 62 people are in quarantine, including two full classrooms.
Younce reported that the district is in the process of launching the state’s Test to Stay program — an initiative in which local school districts provide daily response tests onsite to minimize the need to quarantine — however, it must first get beyond the current spike in cases.
“If we can get new cases to settle down, then we’ll be able to operate the Test to Stay and hopefully get some of those kids back in the buildings,” he said.
While Younce still was waiting on the latest student vaccination numbers, he estimated about 50% to 60% of eligible students were vaccinated.
In addition, students ages 5-11 are beginning to get their doses of the vaccine.
“We had two elementary-based clinics last week. We saw about 25% of our 5- through 11-(year-old) population access those clinics,” said Younce.
With Thanksgiving on the horizon, Younce said he is concerned how case counts will look on the other side of the holiday.
He noted that schools no longer have the regulatory authority to easily pivot to remote learning like they did in the previous academic year.
In May, the Agency of Education declared that schools return to the “normal regulatory framework for determining student attendance and student days,” meaning that at least 51% of the school must be physically in attendance to constitute a school day.
“I guess my concern is, what happens when schools need to be closed down for periods of time and how does that translate in terms of student attendance or not? So I think there’s some things we’re going to need to see some more information on from the state” he said.
Younce underscored the gravity of the current situation, pointing to the announcement over the weekend by the state Department of Health that it would no longer be conducting contact tracing for every positive case reported.
“Due to the currently large number of COVID-19 cases, we are asking Vermonters who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate at home away from other people and begin reaching out to close contacts immediately,” read a message on the health department’s website dated Nov. 13. “The Health Department will prioritize contact tracing to people at higher risk. You may not receive a phone call from a contact tracer, but you still need to stay home and away from others, and follow these steps to stop further spread.”
“If VDH is overwhelmed — that they’re starting to decide who to call and who not to call — how does that translate to schools and the work that we’re trying to do?” Younce asked.