On October 6, 2021

Delta variant has put excruciating pressure on schools

By Brian Ricca

Editor’s note: Brian Ricca is the school superintendent in St. Johnsbury.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the abstract about the impact of the Delta variant in Vermont schools since the academic year began. Here in the real world, with real students, faculty, staff, and families, it’s been excruciating.

To give a real sense of what it has meant, consider these actual numbers in the St. Johnsbury School District.

Thus far, we have had 17 positive cases in our pre-K-8 building through Sept. 24, where more than three-quarters of our students are not yet able to receive a vaccine. There has been promising news on a vaccine for 5-to-11-year-olds, but still, there’s a way to go until it’s available and our students are actually vaccinated.

Of the cases we’ve had, 13 are in pre-K-6, where most if not all of our students are not yet eligible for a vaccine. We have had two positive cases in 7th and 8th grade, where some of our students are vaccinated. Finally, we had two cases where the individuals were not physically in school when they contracted the virus.

Working with our data manager, I found that we average approximately 15 students in each classroom, on the low side. The 13 cases that have occurred so far in our pre-K-6 classrooms affect almost 200 families. Almost 200 families.

Nearly 200 families have to pivot to remote learning. This is almost one-third of our student population. They all have to find child care, or work from home. They all have to get to a testing center, get tested, and wait for the results. They all have to manage their lives differently since nowhere else in the state are masks mandatory.

In addition, this could mean loss of wages for families and a ripple effect on businesses with vaccinated parents needing to take additional time off.

Since none of these children can be vaccinated, the entire class needs to quarantine when there is a positive case.

To give some perspective, with the two instances in our 7th and 8th grades, the impact is not nearly as significant. When close contacts are vaccinated, they do not need to miss school. We have a considerable number of our 7th- and 8th-graders vaccinated, so the impact on their learning was minimal. The disruptive effect on our pre-K-6 students and their families is much worse.

It is laudable that more than 87% of our adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Unfortunately, that does no good for the children who cannot get the vaccine yet and who realistically won’t get the vaccine and be fully vaccinated until early December. And that is a very hopeful and optimistic timeline.

The cases that have impacted almost 200 families in the first five weeks of our school year have also all occurred in late summer, early fall months, when we can be outdoors often. We can spend time out of the building on our campus grounds. We also know that, as the weather turns colder, that will get more and more challenging.  It already feels hard, and the weather is cooperating with us.

It feels like we are doing this alone. It feels like the rest of the state has moved on. The rest of the state, eligible for vaccination, has decided that school cases are not their problem, even though one of the best ways to bring down school transmission is to reduce community transmission.

Schools should not be doing this alone.  Despite the calls of medical experts, politicians and educators for the current administration to do more, they don’t. We need more. We cannot do it alone.

In addition, this burden is falling on school principals, nurses, teachers and staff. Principals are unable to be instructional leaders. Instead, they are making phone calls to families and assessing whether classrooms can stay open. Nurses are spending hours and hours contact tracing, as well as correcting misinformation being shared through the state Covid hotline.

Teachers are juggling the responsibilities of remote and in-person learning, trying to thoughtfully and carefully build relationships that have been frayed over the past 19 months.

Staff members are being reassigned to different coverage areas on a daily basis as our need for substitute teachers dramatically increases.

How much more can schools be expected to bear on their own? Asking for a friend …

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