Derby Elementary School and Newport City Elementary School, both located in Orleans County, fared better than most schools in Vermont last year due to pandemic disruptions. Both schools were open for in-person learning five days a week and only had a small number of COVID-19 cases.
But less than a month into this school year, the two North Country Supervisory Union pre-K-6 schools face a different reality. Amid growing cases of COVID-19, Derby Elementary School, which has more than 450 students, switched to fully distance learning for all students on September 16. .
In an email Thursday, Vermont Department of Health spokeswoman Katie Warchut said the cases in Newport have been classified as an outbreak, meaning there are three or more cases with known links in educational settings. The Derby situation, which involves more cases and is more complex, is still under investigation, “but there appear to be several clusters of cases that are related right now,” Warchut wrote.
Derby Elementary School Principal Stacey Urbino said that since the start of the school year there have been 35 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff who were contagious at the school, and 9 cases in people who were not in school. The overwhelming majority of these cases involved children, Urbino said.
RoseAnna Cyr, a Derby Elementary school counselor and mother of two at the school, described the situation as a “crass reminder” that after a year and a half of coronavirus control in their community, things have not yet returned to normal. .
The coronavirus hit Derby Elementary as soon as it opened, Urbino said. On the first day of school, a student who was showing symptoms of COVID-19 was sent home and then tested positive. This class of students was then sent home to quarantine. The situation snowballed from there. Tests revealed more positive cases and additional classes had to be quarantined.
Searching for contracts – which Urbino does with the school’s deputy principal and nurse – indicated that some students fell ill after family members did, and others contracted the virus at social gatherings, such as birthdays or weddings. But there were also unexplained cases.
“We just started to receive so many that we could not rule out school transmission,” said Urbino. â€œWe decided that we had to go remotely for the safety and well-being of our children. ”
At Newport City Elementary, principal Elaine Collins said her school has recorded 14 cases of COVID-19 since September 12 and expects more to be found. Nine of those who tested positive were contagious in school. This is in stark contrast to last year, when there were only four or five cases of COVID in total, and only two classes that had to be moved away for a week in April, Collins said.
The decision to close Newport City Elementary for in-person learning was made this week when around 200 students were absent, either because they had COVID-19, were close contact with someone who had. , or were cared for at home by worried parents, Collins mentioned. Staff shortages have also been a factor. At the start of the year, the school was already understaffed, especially when it came to paraprofessionals, Collins said. In recent days, 15-20 staff members have not been able to come to school because they were sick, had close contact with a sick person, or had a sick child or learning remotely due to COVID- 19.
North Country Supervisory Union Superintendent John Castle explained his district’s staffing issues. Because some Newport City School staff send their children to school in Derby, the closure of Derby Elementary School has created “a cascading situation” which has resulted in staff absences in Newport. The district also faces a shortage of substitute teachers. Castle said he was not ruling out the possibility that another of the Watch Union’s 12 schools may have to move away at some point due to the interconnectedness of communities in their area.
Orleans County is currently experiencing a spike in cases, Castle added. According to the Vermont Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard on Thursday, Orleans has 66 new cases of the virus and 293 cases in the past 14 days. It is the third least vaccinated county in the state, with 74.6% of eligible residents having received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Because the health department cut back on testing over the summer, Urbino said there was little scope for testing when the Derby outbreak began. Over the Labor Day weekend, no nearby testing sites were open, Urbino said. It also took about five days for the test results to come back. About a week ago, the North Country Hospital in Newport increased the number of testing appointments offered and results appear to be coming back faster, Urbino said.
â€œWe recognize that there is currently a strong demand for testing and that some parts of the state have more limited options,â€ Warchut said. “We continue to work to ensure that Vermonters have the access they need to testing, both through the Department of Health, pharmacies and other healthcare partners. Especially in schools. , we are working with the Education Agency to pilot the use of take-out PCR tests in some school districts as well, with the goal of expanding it in the future. â€
North Country Supervisory Union is not one of the districts piloting the take-out testing program.
Since its closure, Derby Elementary has followed a distance learning plan that was developed in Spring 2020. Teachers log in several times a day to do meetings and morning classes with students and provide hard copies of homework. those who need it. Teachers at his school are â€œrockstars,â€ Urbino said, but also feel the stress of distance learning and prefer to be in person with their students.
In addition to academics, the school also tries to make sure families are connected to other resources. Parents can pick up lunches at school, and meals and groceries are delivered to families in need, school counselor Cyr said.
The school is unable to offer childcare services, but Urbino said families are finding ways to cope. â€œI think parents make it work with their neighbors or take time off work,â€ Urbino said. “There are certainly difficulties there.”
Whether students will get credit for the homework they do is an open question.
Education Secretary Dan French said last May that schools will revert to their regular attendance policies this school year, meaning days far away would not count as official school days and would have to be caught up. . Urbino and Williams said they hoped the Education Agency would reconsider.
â€œWe didn’t think it was appropriate to send the children home without further learning,â€ Urbino said, â€œso we’re hoping to get some sort of waiver.â€
Newport principal Williams, whose school also does distance learning, said she thought it “common sense” for OCWA to count its distance learning days as days. school officials.
Education Agency spokesperson Ted Fisher said there is a process to request a waiver of the teaching day requirement from the State Board of Education. At the start of the pandemic, the board delegated that authority to French, and OCWA may ask for it to happen again this year, Fisher said.
Superintendent Castle has said he is in contact with the French and believes he recognizes the COVID-19 situation right now is more difficult than expected. Castle said if his district were to apply for a waiver later this school year, he is confident he can convincingly justify why distance learning was the best option.
Urbino and Williams said they plan to meet with the superintendent on Friday to review data on recent positive cases and decide whether students will return to school next week.
By closing for in-person learning, â€œI hope we have slowed the route of COVID transmission in Derby and I hope the same in Newport. Castle said.
Whenever school resumes, Urbino has said she plans to revert to more stringent COVID-19 protocols, in line with what state health and education officials have recommended in 40 pages of tips last year. Lunch will take place in the classroom, not in the cafeteria, and students â€œpodrontâ€ with their classmates throughout the day.
Williams said she was troubled by a recent trend she has noticed in community members not taking appropriate actions, such as testing and seclusion, when told they are a close contact. She said she was aware of several cases of people who went to social gatherings instead of self-quarantine and then later tested positive for the virus. She plans to email parents on Friday asking them to follow recommended protocols to help stop the spread of the virus.
Castle also said he knew families were tired of dealing with the pandemic for a year and a half, but urged them to remain vigilant so that the students could return to school.
â€œWe had such a level of optimism in June,â€ Castle said. “That optimism was quickly quashed and we had to come back to the reality we faced last year.”