This fall, COVID-19 stayed away from Winooski schools. During the first three months of the school year, there were no reported cases of the virus in the district.
As things remained steady, K-5 students ramped up to four days a week of in-person school in October and November, while middle and high school students learned under a hybrid model, with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.
But in early December, the district reported three cases of COVID-19 within a week and a half, with a fourth case coming soon after. On December 9, the school district transitioned to fully remote learning.
Since the first recorded case, a total of 66 Winooski students, teachers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19. With approximately 800 students and 200 teachers and staff in the district, that means about 6.6 percent — or 1 in 15 members — of the school community tested positive for COVID-19 in about a month.
Just 13 of the 66 who tested positive were infectious while in school, according to Emily Hecker, the district’s communications director. She credited the district’s shift to remote learning for helping prevent spread.
But with the high number of cases, the school district announced last week that it will continue to operate fully remotely until at least January 19. Winooski superintendent Sean McMannon said in a letter to families and staff last week that 39 of those who had tested positive had completed quarantine and were no longer contagious; the remainder were still in quarantine.
“At this point, the Vermont Department of Health does not have any evidence of transmission occurring at school,” McMannon wrote in the letter.
In an email Tuesday, the Department of Health said that contact tracing for all 13 infectious cases had been completed. “We cannot definitely say there was no in-school transmission, but in all cases there were more likely sources of exposure outside of school (e.g. household or social contact with cases),” public health communication officer Katie Warchut wrote.
Before returning to in-person learning, McMannon said the district would consider three variables: whether positive cases were reliably trending downward; whether the district had sufficient staff; and whether the district could adhere to the safety and health guidance issued by the Vermont Department of Health and Agency of Education.
Winooski is the most diverse city in Vermont and is the state’s only school district where a majority of students are of color. It also boasts the highest population density in the state.
“We know our students need to be in school,” Hecker told Seven Days. “We are doing what we can to encourage everyone in our community to make good decisions so we can bring our students and staff back safely.” Because access to COVID-19 testing was limited over the holidays, she added, the next few weeks of remote learning will allow the district to “get a clearer picture of how COVID is impacting our learning community” and plan accordingly.
Neighboring Burlington also went fully remote for two days before the holiday break after 20 students, teachers and staff in its nine schools tested positive for COVID-19. The six elementary and two middle schools in the district have returned to their regular hybrid learning schedules this week.