On November 25, 2020

Covid strikes Rutland schools

Staff report

While schools seemed to be limiting the spread of Covid-19 fairly well initially, a number of cases have recently been reported in Rutland County.

Earlier this month, a preschooler at Orwell Village School tested positive and last week there were three confirmed cases in Rutland City Public Schools — each at a different school. The cases involved a kindergartner at Northwest Primary School, a Rutland Intermediate School (RIS) sixth grader and an Rutland Middle School (RMS) staff member.

At Northwest, both kindergarten classes were put in quarantine and moved to remote learning until next Monday. At RIS, the entire sixth grade was placed under quarantine and will remain remote until Dec. 2. At Rutland Middle School a cohort of students was also placed under quarantine but will return to in-person instruction next Monday.

Superintendent Bill Olsen has said cases have shown that the district’s preparation has paid off, as infection doesn’t seem to have spread within the school.

Additionally, in the nearby Greater Rutland County Supervisory District a sixth-grader at Poultney Elementary School tested positive Friday, Nov. 20. The combined fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms are now remote and will remain that way for two weeks. It was the first case of Covid in the GRCSU school district.

Earlier this month, a Pre-K student who attends Mary Johnson Children’s Center (run out of Orwell Village School) tested positive, but since the student was not in school during the time they were infectious so it did not affect the K-8 school.

David Younce, superintendent of the Mill River Unified Union School District, said that although his district has not seen any cases of Covid it has connections to the cases in the Rutland. Employees with children in city schools may have to quarantine. He described it as “the tangled web of quarantine impacts” in an interview with the Rutland Herald.

Younce said about 50% of district employees opted to be tested as part of the state’s new K-12 surveillance testing initiative last week. Around 25,000 school employees were tested statewide. Moving forward, voluntary tests will be offered to one quarter of Vermont schools on a rotating weekly schedule.

Thus far, none of those test for staff members in Rutland County have come back positive.

K-12 surveillance testing

The state’s massive K-12 Covid-19 surveillance testing effort got underway last week, and teachers and administrators report the effort — announced just days ago — has so far gone off without a hitch.

State officials said Tuesday, Nov. 17, that about 1,700 school workers were tested Monday. By the end of the week, about 25,000 teachers, administrators, custodians, paraprofessionals and support staff at all public schools and some private schools will have been offered a test.

On each school’s testing date, a shipment of test kits and labels will be delivered through a partnership between the Vermont National Guard and the Agency of Transportation. Tests will be distributed by local school officials, and each individual staff member, who will have registered in advance to receive the test, will self-administer their nasal swab. The tests will then be packed up and shipped off to CIC Health, the private Massachusetts vendor the state has contracted with for the effort, and then processed by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Negative test results will be delivered via email to the individual staff member, and positive results will be communicated via phone call.

For now, cases detected through the effort will be reported through the regular dashboards the state maintains for tracking cases in schools and the general community. But it’s possible that officials will begin reporting on the surveillance program separately as well, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday.

Surveillance testing has been conducted at colleges across the country, including Vermont, with great success, and in many instances appear to have helped contain clusters and outbreaks. The state also conducts surveillance testing in congregate settings, including prisons and long-term-care facilities.

Such efforts have been far less prevalent in schools. One is taking place in New Haven Public Schools, which is working with Yale University. Another is in New York City, the largest school system in the country, to attempt in-person learning this fall.

A better picture of the virus spread

Public health officials in Vermont announced the effort last Tuesday, saying that regularly testing school staff could give the state a better picture of the virus’s spread in the wider community.

The initiative comes as the state faces a record-breaking surge in Covid cases.

“We’ll see where it is now, where we’re certainly in a major battle with this virus. We’ll see where it is right before Thanksgiving. And we’ll see where it is right after Thanksgiving, and that will be really helpful to us,” Levine said.

Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, said surveillance testing should pick up outbreaks in schools early on. As for viral spread in the wider community, Brewer said that will be more limited by how representative —– or not — school employees are of the general population.

“People who work in schools by definition are employed. So that’s already going to make them different from people who are either unemployed, or who work in the informal economy, or work at home,” Brewer said. There could also be demographic differences between the school sample and the general population. Most notably, the education workforce in Vermont, as nationwide, is predominantly female.

To get a really clear picture of how the virus is moving through the community, you would ideally test a random, representative sample of people, Brewer said. But that’s difficult to do.

“The upside of this kind of approach is that it’s a population that’s relatively accessible. So logistically, it’s going to be more feasible,” he said.

Lola Duffort/VTDigger contributed to this report.

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