Educators were less concerned this year about the increase in COVID-19 cases in schools – Community News
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Educators were less concerned this year about the increase in COVID-19 cases in schools

It is not yet clear whether the newly discovered Omicron variant warrants stricter mitigation or surveillance measures in schools. “Obviously this variant is something we need to keep a close eye on, but it’s too early for us to change our behavior,” said Elissa Perkins, an associate professor of emergency medicine and infectious disease expert at Boston University School of Medicine. Medicine, who is also a voluntary advisor to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

High staff vaccination rates and a state testing program have allowed schools so far this fall to quickly determine whether asymptomatic students contracted the virus after exposure to a COVID-19-positive teacher or classmate. Nearly every school in the state participates in the program, allowing more students with negative test results to stay in school.

In the week of November 18, the state registered 3,257 cases among students. that is nearly triple the 1,230 cases documented during the first week of school. Similarly, since September 16, human resources have nearly tripled to 558.

Clusters have sprung up in Andover, Mattapoisett and Southborough, and Boston has closed an entire K-8 school in Jamaica Plain after an outbreak of 46 people, prompting the teachers union and parents to conduct an independent investigation. As schools paused for Thanksgiving, Boston reported another 25 cases of pool testing at Sarah Greenwood K-8 School in Dorchester. (District officials are working to verify how many cases have been confirmed.)

But medical experts say there’s no evidence that schools have become a major source of community diffusion or that Omicron has appeared there.

“It is not surprising that the numbers are rising. It’s the holiday season. People are going inward more,” says Perkins.

Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said schools are not currently a major source of proliferation in most communities. “In most schools, we only see isolated cases that come to light through testing,” he said.

With a better understanding of the ebb and flow of the virus and more tools available to manage contagion, school leaders said they felt more optimistic.

“I’m less concerned than around this time last year,” said Billerica inspector Tim Piwowar, who said most of his staff have been vaccinated. Omicron’s discovery, however, has dampened his optimism. “The timing of this is bad,” he said, pointing to the “inevitable” rise in cases after Thanksgiving and during the holiday season.

For now, experts and school leaders say there is no evidence to drastically change the way they protect their students and staff. (Although some school districts experimenting with unmasking might take a break before ditching the face covering completely.)

In addition to the availability of vaccinations, including the more recent approval to immunize younger children, schools have been able to use a state testing program called “Test and Stay” to respond to positive cases at school. Instead of sending all contacts home to quarantine like last year, districts like Billerica that signed up can quickly test students and teachers.

In Andover, for example, school leaders responded to an outbreak of 31 students and one primary school staff member as of Nov. 1. Contract tracers aren’t sure of the source, but believe the transfer may have happened at three different community events, according to district spokeswoman Nicole Kieser.

The primary school did not close classrooms. Instead, the school used the state’s testing program to quickly rule that there were no additional positives among classmates, causing a “large number of students to continue with in-person classes,” Kieser wrote.

Statewide, the program has helped “save” 135,438 personal school days, according to state data.

“It’s been a huge help,” said New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson, who had to close two classrooms this fall after students tested positive. “Nothing is perfect, but this works for us.”

Anderson wasn’t sure what percentage of students agreed to get tested, but said many families choose it “when faced with the possibility of having their child stay home.”

At Lowell Public Schools, only about a quarter of students sign up for test and residency, according to Jason McCrevan, Washington Elementary School director and interim security coordinator for the district. “We hope more will sign up,” he said.

Bromage, an associate professor of UMass Dartmouth, is concerned that too few campuses are using surveillance testing, which regularly tests students and staff who have signed up regardless known exposures in an effort to catch cases before they spread. “By not participating in the surveillance program, they are going blind,” Bromage says.

According to state data, only 63 percent of schools are signed up for proactive surveillance testing, and some of the largest districts don’t use them. (The state does not recommend it for students and staff who have been vaccinated.) Without regular monitoring testing, schools “will not know if transmission is occurring in school until after multiple cases are seen in extracurricular testing,” he said. said. “At that stage they try to chase infections, instead of leading the way.”

But it’s not good use of schools’ limited staff, according to some inspectors and Perkins, the professor of emergency medicine at Boston University. She advocated surveillance testing in schools last year, but says scientists now have more information. “My stance has changed since we have data from last year and there was very little transmission in school,” she said.

And since vaccinations became available to children aged 5 to 11 earlier this month, she is even more convinced that schools should devote their time and energy to rapidly testing students who show symptoms of the virus or have been exposed to a classmate. who tests positive.

But in districts where vaccination coverage is low, there is still a reluctance to withdraw surveillance tests given the increase in the number of cases. “We’re a little concerned,” said Azell Cavaan, spokeswoman for the Springfield Public Schools, a city where 43 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated. The district uses both regular surveillance tests and test and stay when there is a positive case. “We have not had any clusters. But vaccines are not what we want them to be.”

Piwowar in Billerica, where less than half of 12- to 15-year-olds have been fully vaccinated, is concerned about the children in his district who have yet to take the shot. “There is the impact on health. . . and then there’s the fact that kids who test positive don’t go to school for a significant amount of time and the impact on their education is huge.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter on @biancavtoness.


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