BARRE — A relic of last school year is being revived in Barre where a troubling uptick in COVID-19 cases means children will again be quizzed daily about how they are feeling before boarding buses or entering school buildings.
Though temperature checks have been ditched, Interim Superintendent Chris Hennessey said Friday his decision to bring back daily health screenings district-wide starting on Monday can be traced to a “significant” increase in confirmed COVID case counts during the past several days.
“If you look at what numbers other schools are facing around the state, we’re getting in ‘outlier’ territory,” he said.
While the numbers aren’t nearly as bad as dated data on a state website seemed to suggest on Friday, Hennessey said his hope that last week’s “lull” in cases was a sign of things to come turned out to be wishful thinking.
Though he didn’t have an exact count, Hennessey said roughly a dozen new cases, including students and staff, surfaced this week.
“It’s been really steady all week,” he said.
None of the district campuses, which include centralized elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as Spaulding High School and its new off-site alternative program on Allen Street, were immune from the latest batch of cases. However, as has been the case since the start of the school year, Hennessey said the problem remains most pronounced at the district’s two pre-K-8 schools where most students are still too young to be vaccinated and hundreds of them have had to be quarantined for prolonged periods of time as a precaution.
Through Friday afternoon Hennessey said there had been 40 confirmed COVID cases at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School since the start of the year and another 32 at Barre City Elementary and Middle School. There have been nine cases at Spaulding High School and another three at the Spaulding-based Central Vermont Career Center.
Those totals, which include this week’s numbers, account for a combined 84 cases across the two-town, three-school district since students returned to their classrooms Aug. 30.
Through Oct. 3, school specific data compiled by the state suggest there were a total of 37 cases in the Barre Unified Union School District — a figure Hennessey said doesn’t reflect the number of cases confirmed at each of the district’s three schools through that date due to a reporting lag that makes them unreliable.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to share our numbers as of today with the community,” Hennessey said when asked if the number of cases had actually more than doubled during the past week.
While they haven’t, Hennessey said there has been a perceptible increase this week prompting his decision to reinstitute health screenings designed to keep students displaying one or more symptoms of COVID from showing up at school.
Citing the case counts and the number of students who are now being sent home because they are displaying symptoms, Hennessey said reviving the health screenings is a prudent move.
“We have to do it,” he said. “We’ve got too many positive cases coming into the schools.”
Hennessey said students, or their parents, will either be questioned by “bus riders” at bus stops, or as they arrive at school if there is no rider aboard their bus. Students who are dropped off, walk or drive to school will be surveyed before entering the building.
“We were hoping the delta variant had started to ebb, but it’s still very much in our community,” he said, suggesting that has had an “enormous impact” on the district’s schools.
Hennessey said contact tracing has been a challenge and the impact on “close contacts” and their families has been real.
“We were looking at needing to quarantine … close to 200 kids between our schools this week,” he said.
By way of comparison, a single case prompted officials in the Montpelier-Roxbury Public School District to send two fifth-grade classes at Main Street Middle School home Thursday afternoon. Those students can get tested Monday and will be eligible to return if the results of those tests are negative.
The Montpelier-Roxbury district, like the neighboring Washington Central Unified Union School District, has started offering voluntary surveillance testing for students and staff each Monday.
This week 633 students and staff members in Washington Central participated in the latest round of surveillance testing. There was one positive case, which impacted U-32 Middle and High School.
Surveillance testing hasn’t yet started in Barre, and Hennessey said it isn’t clear when — or if — what he described as the heavier emphasis the state is placing on a “Test to Stay” initiative that superintendents around the state have questioned will start.
Hennessey, who told the Barre Unified School Board he volunteered to pilot the program before it was announced, said he shares the logistical concerns raised by several of his peers in a story that appeared in Friday’s edition of The Times Argus.
“We’re for it if we can pull it off, but, boy, are there concerns,” he said.
Hennessey stressed the district’s interest in participating in the Test to Stay program in a week-ending memo to members of the school community. However, he predicted it would likely be weeks before safety and logistical issues are addressed and the program is ready for implementation.
In the meantime, Hennessey said bringing back health screenings was a sensible safety precaution and one, he said, that shouldn’t disrupt bus schedules.
A shortage of bus drivers will.
Hennessey, who is looking to hire 17 para-educators and fill other vacant positions, said the district is now down two bus drivers. That, he said, will have an impact on bus schedules for elementary school students, at least in the short term.
Hennessey has warned parents and guardians whose children ride buses to expect “delays and disruptions” through next week at a minimum.