Derby Elementary School and Newport City Elementary School, both in Orleans County, fared better than most Vermont schools last year when it came pandemic disruptions. Both schools were open for in-person learning five days a week and had just a small number of COVID-19 cases.
But less than a month into this school year, the two pre-K-6 North Country Supervisory Union schools are facing a different reality. Amid mounting COVID-19 cases, Derby Elementary School, which has more than 450 students, shifted to fully remote learning for all students on September 16. Nearby Newport City Elementary, with around 325 students, made the decision on Wednesday to go remote as well.
In an email Thursday, Vermont Health Department spokesperson Katie Warchut said the cases in Newport have been classified as an outbreak, which means there are three or more cases with known connections in the educational setting. The Derby situation, which involves more cases and is more complex, is still under investigation, "but there appear to be multiple clusters of cases that are linked at this time," Warchut wrote.
Derby Elementary principal Stacey Urbin said that since the beginning of the school year, there have been 35 cases of COVID-19 in students and staff who were infectious while in school, and nine cases in people who were not infectious while in school. The overwhelming majority of those cases were in children, Urbin said.
RoseAnna Cyr, Derby Elementary’s school counselor and a parent of two children at the school, described the situation as “a rude reminder” that after a year and a half of keeping coronavirus under control in their community, things are not back to normal quite yet.
The coronavirus hit Derby Elementary right as it opened, Urbin said. On the first day of school, a student who was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms was sent home and later tested positive. That students’ class was subsequently sent home to quarantine. The situation snowballed from there. Testing found more positive cases and additional classes had to quarantine.
Contact tracing — which Urbin is doing along with the school’s assistant principal and nurse — indicated that some students became ill after family members did, and others contracted the virus at social gatherings, such as birthday parties or weddings. But there were also some unexplained cases.
“We just started getting so many that we couldn’t rule out school transmission,” Urbin said. “We decided we had to go remote for the safety and well-being of our children.”
At Newport City Elementary, principal Elaine Collins said that her school has had 14 COVID-19 cases since September 12, and expects more will be found. Nine of those who tested positive were infectious while in school. It’s a stark contrast to last year, when there were only four or five COVID cases in total, and just two classes that had to go remote for a week in April, Collins said.
The decision to close Newport City Elementary for in-person learning was made this week when around 200 students were absent, either because they had COVID-19, were a close contact of someone who did, or were being kept home by concerned parents, Collins said. Staffing shortages were also a factor. At the start of the year, the school was already understaffed, especially when it came to paraprofessionals, Collins said. In recent days, 15 to 20 staff members weren’t able to come to school because they were sick, a close contact of a sick person, or had a child who was sick or learning remotely due to COVID-19.
North Country Supervisory Union superintendent John Castle elaborated on his district’s personnel challenges. Because some staff at Newport City School send their children to school in Derby, the Derby Elementary closure created “a cascading situation” that led to staff absences in Newport. The district is also facing a shortage of substitute teachers. Castle said he isn’t ruling out the possibility that another of the supervisory union’s 12 schools may have to go remote at some point because of the interconnectedness of the communities in their region.
Orleans County is experiencing a spike in cases right now, Castle added. According to the Vermont Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard on Thursday, Orleans has 66 new cases of the virus, and 293 cases in the last 14 days. It is the third least vaccinated county in the state, with 74.6 percent of eligible residents having received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Because the health department scaled down testing during the summer, Urbin said there were limited opportunities for testing when the Derby outbreak first started. Over the Labor Day weekend, no nearby testing sites were open, Urbin said. Test results were also taking around five days to come back. Around a week ago, North Country Hospital in Newport increased the number of testing appointments being offered and results seem to be coming back quicker, Urbin said.
"We recognize there is a high demand for testing right now and there are certain parts of the state that have more limited options," Warchut said. "We continue to work to ensure Vermonters have the access they need to testing, both through the Health Department, pharmacies and other health care partners. Particularly in schools, we are working with the Agency of Education on piloting the use of take home PCR tests in some school districts as well, with the goal of expanding it in the future."
North Country Supervisory Union is not one of the districts piloting the take-home testing program.
Since it closed, Derby Elementary has been following a remote learning plan that was developed in the spring of 2020. Teachers are logging on several times a day to do morning meetings and lessons with students and providing hard copies of assignments to those who need it. The teachers at her school are “rockstars,” Urbin said, but are also feeling the stress of remote learning and would rather be in-person with their students.
In addition to academics, the school is also trying to make sure families are connected with other resources. Parents can pick up lunches at the school, and meals and groceries are being delivered to families in need, school counselor Cyr said.
The school is not able to offer childcare, but Urbin said families are finding ways to get by. “I think parents are making it work with their neighbors, or taking time off work,” said Urbin. “There’s definitely some hardship there.”
Whether students will get credit for the at-home work they're doing is an open question.
Education Secretary Dan French said last May that schools would go back to their regular attendance policies this school year, meaning that remote days would not count as official days of school and would have to be made up. Urbin and Williams said they are hoping that the Agency of Education will reconsider.
“We didn’t feel it was appropriate to send kids home without continuing their learning,” Urbin said, “so we’re hoping to get some type of waiver.”
Newport principal Collins, whose school is also doing remote learning, said she believes it’s “common sense” that the AOE would count their remote learning days as official days of school.
Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher said that there is a process for seeking a waiver of the instructional days requirement from the State Board of Education. During the early days of the pandemic, the board delegated that authority to French, and it’s possible that the AOE will request that it happen again this year, Fisher said.
Superintendent Castle said he’s been in touch with French and believes he recognizes that the COVID-19 situation right now is more difficult than anticipated. Castle said that if his district must apply for a waiver later this school year, he’s confident he can make a strong case for why remote learning was the best option.
Both Urbin and Collins said they plan to meet with the superintendent on Friday to look at data about recent positive cases and decide whether students will return to school next week.
By closing for in-person learning, “I’m hopeful that we slowed the pathway of COVID transmission in Derby, and hoping for the same thing in Newport.” Castle said.
Whenever school resumes, Urbin said she’s planning to go back to more stringent COVID-19 protocols, in line with what state health and education officials recommended in 40 pages of guidance last year. Lunch will be in the classroom, not the cafeteria, and students will “pod” with their classmates throughout the day.
Collins said she’s troubled by a recent trend she's noticed of community members not taking appropriate measures, such as testing and isolating, when told they’re a close contact. She said she knows of several cases of people who’ve gone to social gatherings instead of quarantining, then later tested positive for the virus. She’s planning to send an email plea to parents on Friday asking them to follow recommended protocols to help stop the spread of the virus.
Castle, too, said he knows that families are fatigued from dealing with the pandemic for a year and a half, but is asking them to remain vigilant so that students can go back to school.
“We had such a high level of optimism in June,” Castle said. “That optimism got quickly quashed and we’ve had to return to the reality we dealt with last year.”
Correction, September 24, 2021: Elaine Collins was misidentified in some secondary references.