By Erin Petenko and Lola Duffort/VTDigger
It isn’t Labor Day yet, but some back-to-school districts are already reporting back-to-school Covid-19 cases.
Four schools — Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Summit Street School in Essex Junction, Shoreham Elementary School and St. Albans Town Education Center — have announced Covid-19 cases among students or staff.
A fifth, Twinfield Union School in Plainfield, closed Monday to give school officials time to collect information after three students in different grades tested positive. A sixth, East Montpelier Elementary School, sent students to remote learning for the rest of the week after getting two positive cases, according to an email to parents.
But it’s too early to say exactly how many Covid-19 cases students and staff across Vermont have contracted. While VTDigger has compiled public announcements and tips from parents and staff, the state government itself isn’t publishing school case data and won’t begin to do so until mid-September, according to Ted Fisher, the Agency of Education spokesperson.
Department of Health spokesperson Ben Truman said the state hopes to have school data online “within the next two weeks.”
The Covid data team at the health department have been working to provide support for the state data dashboards and weekly data updates, Truman wrote via email.
“I know that given your personal expertise, you can appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into providing this to Vermonters,” he wrote.
The health department, in the meantime, would “ensure Vermonters have the actionable information they need to stay informed,” Truman said.
Some school leaders are unhappy about the delay in school data. Jeanné Collins, superintendent at Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and past president of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said her reaction to that timetable was a “really high level of concern.”
“The state has put out a two-page recommendation that speaks to 10 days of masking and then evaluate,” she said. “And now they’re saying that we won’t even get statewide data until after 15 days.”
That recommendation, issued by the Agency of Education earlier in August, suggests that districts impose a 10-day masking requirement for all their schools, then lift the mask order if a school meets a certain vaccination rate criteria.
Collins did add that maybe there was a good reason the reporting isn’t being launched sooner, and said she was curious to hear from the state. But she said the data was really valuable for explaining her decision-making to staff and parents.
“It was largely useful in correcting misperceptions in my parents, staff and community. Either believing it’s not really here or believing that it’s more than it is. It helps to explain decisions,” Collins said.
The school data is also an important way to gauge community spread in the area, she said.
Darren Allen, spokesperson for the Vermont branch of the National Education Association, said the union was most concerned with “accurate real-time information that is locally actionable.”
“The aggregate weekly data is an important snapshot for statewide conversations and to look at trends. The most important information, as you can imagine, during a pandemic, is to have real-time information about the occurrence of an incredibly infectious airborne disease,” he said.
Anne Sosin, a rural health researcher and policy fellow at Dartmouth College’s Nelson Rockefeller Policy Center, has been critical of Gov. Phil Scott for providing what she called unclear and insufficient school guidance for the fall.
The timetable for reporting school data was no different.
“I don’t understand why we don’t have a school dashboard and all other systems in place, given that this is our second pandemic school year,” Sosin said.
Although there were some changes in this year’s testing and tracing strategies, such as student surveillance testing, she said “the basic architecture is in place to track cases in schools.”
“It’s really essential right now that we understand what’s happening in schools,” she said. “This is not something that we should be waiting a month or longer to reactivate.”
Data is particularly essential because of the Delta variant, a highly transmissible strain of the virus that now makes up all new cases in Vermont. Information on the latest cases would inform whether new mitigation strategies were needed, such as hybrid options or tampering down cases in the community, she said.
It’s worth noting that Vermont published school data last year, but it never had a dashboard and the details of cases were limited.
Last year’s data collection consisted of a PDF with a list of schools, the number of their cases in the past week and cases so far during the school year. The state reported only cases of students and staff who attended school or a school event while infectious, not cases among students who were attending remotely, for example.
The state also does not release data on whether cases were instances of in-school transmission. Sosin said it would be helpful to know where cases are occurring. “All introductions come from the outside, obviously, but we really want to learn about what is happening in schools,” she said.
“Good investigations can really help us think about where there are breakdowns in mitigation strategies (a teacher at my daughter’s school was dropping [her] mask to teach) versus a need to enhance those that are in place (cloth masking not enough),” Sosin wrote via email.
Not all cases in schools lead to in-school transmission. Twinfield was one such example, Principal Mark Mooney said.
The school, which runs from preschool to Grade 12, closed Kindergarten to Grade 6 Monday after five students in three separate grades tested positive. Mooney said the school would reopen Tuesday, but the three classrooms exposed to the virus would continue to quarantine.
Mooney said the cases seem to be the result of the students separately attending a local day care where they contracted the disease, rather than contracting it from each other.
The state has been helpful so far in the contact tracing process, he said, but this year has been “hard for schools.”
“Throughout the summer, people are having a harder time, because of our successes, to step back and deal with the current state,” he said.
Other schools with positive cases included:
Crossett Brook Middle School reported that a fifth-grader had tested positive and that the school had identified 22 close contacts.
Essex-Westford school Superintendent Beth Cobb said one third-grader in the district tested positive, sending the student’s classroom into remote learning.
Shoreham Elementary School reported two members of its school community had contracted Covid-19 and were at school while infected.
St. Albans Town Educational Center did not release details on its one positive case there and did not return a request for comment.
East Montpelier Elementary School and its school district, Washington Central Unified Union, did not return requests for comment.