IRSD Disinfecting the podium

As a precaution against COID-19, a staff member disinfects the podium at a Board of Education meeting at Indian River School District in November 2020. The microphone also gets a wipe down after every speaker.

Delaware officials are confidently ready to get students back in school after a month of all-remote learning. In December, Gov. John Carney recommended that schools “pause” hybrid learning (which includes some in-person schooling) from Dec. 14 to Jan. 8 in order for the state to get a handle on the second half of the school year.

Now, schools are being warmly encouraged to return to hybrid instruction, especially for younger and more vulnerable students, according to a Jan. 5 public letter from Carney; Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health; and Secretary Susan Bunting of the Delaware Department of Education.

“As we have said many times, we do not believe there is a public health reason to close schools,” they wrote. “We have spent the past four weeks helping schools try to address the operational challenges they are experiencing. And we can all agree that students learn best when they’re in school.

“The schools are among the safest places in our community. We have not seen measurable community spread in the school systems themselves,” they emphasized in the letter.

When it comes to children, “Those who tested positive were more likely to have attended social gatherings, weddings parties, playdates and funerals. But they weren’t as likely to have attended childcare or schools in person,” said Rattay, citing a recent CDC study of 400 Mississippi students.

The same protections things that keep students safe could work if everyone in the community was as strict about pandemic precautions, Carney indicated: “Every state in our region and every state in the country … are seeing the and saying the same things … that schools are safer, that other places can be safer if you do the following things.”

“It’s a testament to the hard work of students, educators and staff that the number of COVID-positive students and staff is so low,” they said, and “The few cases thought to result from in-school spread are frequently observed to be in settings where mask-wearing was not consistently practiced.”

With a disease that was only identified a year ago, public understanding of COVID-19 is changing constantly. Even since the Delaware Department of Education (DOE) made its first round of educational guidelines in August, the “eye-opening” realization was that higher community spread doesn’t necessarily equate to higher school spread, Rattay explained.

Carney’s two big goals for 2021 are getting people vaccinated and getting students in front of teachers.

During the break, state officials met individually with leadership from all 19 school districts, plus union representatives and charter schools. Bunting said she appreciated everyone’s candor and honest conversations.

While they hoped that educators were getting a chance to “recharge, reorganize, and get ready for the rest of the school year,” they said, the Carney administration had heard from dozens of educators, issued more guidance for school nurses and had the Department of Justice meet with attorneys for each district and for the DSEA to review the law around data-sharing in order to promote greater data transparency.

“I think most of them really do want our students back in schools, recognizing that we can meet our students’ needs if they are with us … at least part of the time each week,” said Bunting.

Hearing that educators want more transparency about how the coronavirus spreads in schools, the Delaware Division of Public Health launched a new schools-focused COVID-19 dashboard on their online data system (https://myhealthycommunity.dhss.delaware.gov/locations/state/in-person-contagious). The dashboard will track the number of contagious cases among staff and students at Delaware schools, and offer a more detailed picture of COVID-19 infection in school buildings.

Since September, 446 staff members and 579 students across the state were known to have been present at school 48 hours prior to the onset of symptoms (or their positive test date), when the period of contagiousness may begin. That number includes 62 students and 50 staff at IRSD.

That doesn’t mean those people caught COVID-19 at schools or daycares, but it’s an indication of what those places are dealing with. All of this data is reported by school nurses to DPH.

Data will be updated weekly on Wednesdays. Weekly breakdowns won’t really get going until mid-January, when schools return from winter break and/or remote learning.

Getting students safely in school

Many schools are operating in a hybrid system, where the student population is split up to physically attend school in-person on alternating days. Public schools can be stricter about mask-wearing, social distancing, disinfection and other methods designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Of course, some schools are only able to manage physical distancing because some students still learning 100 percent remotely from home.

Since some districts may still be experiencing operational challenges, they were encouraged to bring back as many of these groups as safely possible: elementary school students, middle-schoolers, students with special needs, English learners, low-income students and students with internet connectivity challenges.

“The risk of contracting the virus in school is low compared to the risks students face not being in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics and others have repeatedly pointed to the negative effects on children — especially our most vulnerable children — when they aren’t able to attend school in person.” And textbook learning is just the start. “Many students rely on schools for meals, counseling, and social and emotional support.”

What hurts is that “6- and 7-year-olds are learning how to read, and missing that in-person ability, and those who don’t have the support at home, which is necessary to get off to a strong start,” Carney said. “Without a strong start, the academic career is going to suffer.”

At this point, the state as a whole hasn’t collected data on how many students may be falling behind. Individual schools and teachers can do regular testing, besides the regular checks that occur on a regular basis in the classroom for how well students are grasping each concept. The challenge is that typical tutoring methods — such as pulling students out of class during or holding sessions after school — is not easily available during the pandemic. Solutions will vary by district, and perhaps there will be more leeway in summer, Bunting said.

Quarantine strains the system

In some places, it is the proactive quarantine — not the illness — that is causing challenges. Substitutes are already in short supply, for teachers, custodians, cafeteria staff and so forth. But Millsboro Middle School is one location that had to enter entirely remote learning in December when they couldn’t find enough subs to fill staffing gaps, partly due to quarantine.

However, as schools have proven to be a potentially safer place in terms of COVID spread, Bunting said she hopes that individuals who have considered substituting in the past will step up to help out (register at joindelawareschools.org or call a local school district to learn more).

Also, the CDC’s new quarantine guidelines should reduce some of the burden on schools. By Jan. 11, school personnel coming into close contact with a positive COVID case will only need to quarantine for 10 days (or seven days with a negative test on Day 5 or later).

School staff who are on the front lines are part of Delaware’s vaccination Phase 1b for essential workers (details at de.gov/covidvaccine). They are also being tested on at least a monthly basis, and some locations, including Indian River High School and Lord Baltimore Elementary School, are even hosting public testing on a regular or semi-regular basis (free testing details at de.gov/gettested).

“We’re really grateful for the community sites. I think it brings comfort to the community about the number of people being tested and the number of people who are not carriers of the disease,” said Bunting. “We have a variety of ways to constantly ensure those who are interacting with students are healthy.”

School sports plans are undecided

Plans for upcoming school sports have not yet been decided, although officials said they were pleasantly surprised and impressed with how the delayed fall sports schedule played out.

“We’re still wrestling with that,” Carney said of winter sports. “I was pleased overall with how fall sports ended up. We didn’t see hardly any transmission at all. … Winter sports is another matter. It’s indoors, close-contact — basketball and wrestling in particular.”

School sports went better than club tournaments because of the controlled environment, Carney said.

“It does illustrate the difference between controlled environments and non-controlled environments — particularly where people let down their guard a little bit, they’re not wearing masks, they’re closer together than 6 feet, not distancing and [ignoring the] mask wearing that is required at a public athletic event.”

“I just was so incredibly impressed with how well our youth high school sports were this fall,” Rattay echoed. “I think it’s more challenging in some of these less-formal environments to have that kind of control over the setting, or at least it seems to be.”

Delaware’s COVID-19 information is online at de.gov/healthycommunity. The full letter regarding education plans can be found online at governor.delaware.gov.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.