SUBSCRIBE NOW

As Delaware schools return to hybrid learning Monday, some teachers doubt state numbers

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

After a pause to hybrid learning, thousands of Delaware students and teachers will head back to hybrid school on Monday at the urging of the governor, with more to follow in the coming weeks. 

Much like the weeks leading up to the start of school in September, whether or not it’s safe for students and staff to be in school buildings depends on whom you ask. 

But unlike September, when most school districts started the year virtually, the presence of COVID-19 in Delaware has reached levels unseen even at the start of the pandemic in March. 

During the week of Sept. 1, the rate of new cases totaled 72.2 per 100,000 people. That number has since increased six-fold to 452.9. The percent of tests that are positive has ballooned to 9.3%, and average daily hospitalizations have increased from 6.1 to 42.8 per 100.000 people. 

On Thursday, the state announced 1,241 new positive cases, setting a record for the most cases in one day. On Friday, an additional 582 cases were reported.

COVID-19 NUMBERS:Delaware reports records for new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in first week of 2021

State officials, citing contact tracing and a growing body of research, say that schools are “proven to be safer than just about any other place.” Mitigation efforts like mask-wearing and social distancing make spread within schools rare, health experts have said. 

That logic doesn’t make sense to some teachers. If communities across the state are seeing such high levels of spread, how could the virus not be present and spreading within schools, especially without regular COVID-19 testing of students?

“You can’t stop a virus at the front door of your school,” said Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association, the union representing teachers and staff in the state. “To say that schools are a safe place to be and that no spread occurs in schools? Our teachers, I can’t say that they’re believing that.” 

With the return to hybrid, the state also abandoned the data criteria that were previously used to determine whether schools should be fully virtual, fully in-person or in between with hybrid learning. 

The move has further chipped away at trust between worried teachers and state health officials. 

SCHOOL DATA:Delaware will now give more detailed information about COVID-19 in schools

Governor John Carney speaks during his weekly press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Delaware Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

Carney himself acknowledged that changing course from the state’s initial school reopening parameters could hinder public confidence in the state’s approach to schools. 

“But I take equally seriously the implications of ignoring science,” Carney said in December, when the shift to virtual learning was recommended not for health reasons, but to give schools a chance to reevaluate operational challenges like staffing shortages. 

“We can’t hang on to old facts that don’t meet current realities,” Carney said. “We have to adapt and adjust, just like we’ve asked educators to do.” 

DECEMBER'S SCHOOL PAUSE:Delaware issues stay-at-home advisory, indoor mask order; remote learning suggested

Over winter break, when state officials met with district and union leaders to discuss what could be done to make teachers feel safer, teachers expressed confusion that the state had thrown out its initial criteria, Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said. 

But now, with no clear data parameters guiding when schools are or are not safe, teachers feel left in the dark. 

“For so long, we had the certainty of knowing green, yellow, red and what that means,” Ingram said. “As far as we’re concerned, we still don’t know what it would take for our schools to go back to remote.” 

At the start of the school year, many teachers didn’t expect that COVID-19 cases would even push schools to the point of needing to close, said Lauren Sokolnicki, a behavior analyst with the Delaware Autism Program in Christina School District. 

To see the numbers pass the threshold for closure, and then the state abandon those metrics, was a shock, she said. 

“It shows that the intention and the priority is simply about keeping schools open no matter what,” Sokolnicki said. “The trust is gone.”

Social distancing and hygiene advice for dealing with Covid-19 line the halls at Lake Forest East Elementary School Wednesday, September 2, 2020.

The state has made the case for hybrid learning throughout the year. Schools are safe, Carney says almost weekly at his press briefings. 

Contact tracing, almost to the state’s surprise, shows little spread of COVID-19 within schools, both Carney and public health officials have said. In the rare cases when epidemiologists do track spread within a school, they often trace it back to adults eating in close vicinity, said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health. 

Among children, cases are “usually traced back to some kind of social event,” Bunting said. “Something on the outside where kids have picked up the virus. Birthday parties, social events, larger groups getting together.” 

Out of about 60,000 students attending some form of in-person learning, 579 have tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 1 – just under 1% of all students present in buildings. Among teachers and staff, 546 have tested positive in the same time frame. 

“I’m kind of surprised when I look at these data and talk to our epidemiologists,” Rattay said. “We’re just really not seeing spread in schools. But this is what’s consistent with some of the studies the CDC has done and what has been seen internationally. This controlled environment that includes mask wearing and social distancing is really showing itself to be effective in preventing spread in schools.”

A growing body of research shows that precautions like masks and social distancing play a major role in limiting spread within schools. Two new studies found that opening school buildings doesn’t increase the spread of COVID-19 in areas where case numbers and hospitalization rates are low. 

EastSide Charter school nurse Dottie Lennon, right, gives student Emani Griggs hand sanitizer Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. EastSide Charter tests staff and students for COVID-19 on a weekly basis.

However, the studies found that reopening schools in areas with higher caseloads – such as Delaware has seen – does contribute to spreading the virus throughout the community. 

It is still unclear at what point school reopening becomes riskier, researchers have said.  

In Delaware, Rattay said, school numbers do not seem to reflect numbers in the surrounding communities.

“We feel that it’s really important to separate that community summary from what’s really going on in schools,” Rattay said. “What we’ve learned since [the summer] is that schools have been able to manage well in preventing spread even when there are higher levels of community spread.” 

COULD SCHOOLS TEST STUDENTS? At EastSide Charter, students and staff get weekly COVID-19 tests. Should other schools do the same?

Teachers watching numbers surpass levels that initially pushed schools to virtual learning have their doubts. 

“I don’t understand how you can send people back into the buildings with children when our community spread is so extremely high right now. It’s the highest it’s ever been,” said Fran Strosser, president of the teacher’s union in Smyrna School District and teacher at Smyrna Elementary School. “They keep saying, ‘Rely on the data, trust the science.’ And now they’re telling us, ‘Yes, but you, you can go back into school because it’s safe in schools.’ I don’t see the rationalization there.” 

Even if there is no spread within classrooms, high levels of community spread are making it increasingly difficult for schools to maintain necessary staffing, Rattay and school leaders have said. 

“The biggest issue we were all dealing with was operational. As we were getting large swatches of school personnel quarantined, it made it difficult to run classes,” said Dan Shelton, superintendent of Christina School District.   

Chief custodian Gary Schaffer (right) and night custodian Jimmy Walls work to get Castle Hills Elementary School ready for a year of remote and socially distant learning on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020.

In the fall, schools up and down the state faced sporadic closures as teachers and administrators found themselves needing to quarantine after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive. In some cases, schools were forced to close their doors just days after making the shift from virtual to hybrid. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its recommendation on the length of time school personnel who have been in close contact with a positive COVID-19 need to quarantine, shortening the timeframe from 14 days to 10. 

The change will hopefully ease staffing challenges, superintendents said. But it still won’t prevent community spread from affecting people in buildings.  

“Is there a possibility the district would close? Absolutely. But it would be based on operational concerns,” Shelton said. “As far as what’s going to happen moving forward, do I anticipate classrooms being moved to remote at one point in time? Absolutely. At the micro-level, I expect we will have groups that are quarantined.”

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.