Pressured to Return to Class, Teachers Begin Checking State's COVID-19 Math | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Pressured to Return to Class, Teachers Begin Checking State's COVID-19 Math

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Ilustration - DIANA BOLTON
  • Diana Bolton
  • Ilustration

More than most, teachers tend to respect the rules, and Amy Cudney is no exception. The J.J. Flynn Elementary School librarian dutifully canceled her Thanksgiving plans last fall and ceased outdoor visits with friends as soon as Gov. Phil Scott restricted household gatherings.

Cudney sent her husband, who works remotely, to retrieve their daughter from Syracuse University at the end of the fall term and saw that they quarantined upon return. Besides her time in Burlington school classrooms, Cudney said, her only out-of-home activities are bicycling to and from work and running errands. 

When Cudney fell ill last month with COVID-19, a likely source of her exposure seemed obvious. One of the classrooms she works in had just gone remote because a student had tested positive; Cudney had already been told by her principal to quarantine as a close contact, she said.

A day after Cudney's positive result came back, on December 18, Superintendent Tom Flanagan announced that the entire district was switching to remote learning due to an increase in COVID-19 cases. His letter to employees and families included a reassuring statement that Cudney thought was surely in error.

"The Vermont Department of Health still does not see evidence of the spread of COVID-19 in our schools," Flanagan wrote, "and continues to reinforce that our schools are safe."

In other words, while students and teachers brought the virus to school, they weren't infecting each other while they were there. Cudney spent more than three weeks going back and forth with the district and the health department trying to understand how Flanagan's statement squared with her own situation.

She eventually learned that the superintendent's message wasn't a mistake. The health department could not confirm that she was infected at J.J. Flynn, and because of the narrow way the state reports school-related cases, Cudney likely wasn't included in the department's public data, either.

Her case, she realized, was effectively invisible.

The discrepancy might have seemed merely curious if not for the pressure teachers are facing to spend more time inside physical classrooms. Scott, in his January 7 inaugural address, said he wants Vermont schools to resume fully in-person learning sometime in April, but he did not promise to vaccinate teachers before then. More than 125,000 older and medically vulnerable Vermonters are still ahead of younger essential workers in the state's vaccination line, frustrating many teachers who want to get their shots.

The Scott administration's rationale is that schools with vigilant mitigation efforts are relatively lower-risk places. In Vermont, as elsewhere, the state's data suggest that schools are not hotbeds of viral transmission, unlike meatpacking plants and nursing homes.

To the contrary, the state has said that infection rates among teachers appear to be markedly lower than among the general population. Vermont Education Secretary Dan French touted the latest surveillance-testing figures at a January 15 press conference: Of 2,200 asymptomatic teachers across the state who were tested that week, only one was positive for the coronavirus.

"These test results are a good indicator that our schools are operating very safely," he said.

Some teachers, girding for a showdown over vaccines and in-person learning, are beginning to publicly question the state's rosy assessment. They contend that the state's school infection data is incomplete at best, or misleading at worst.

A Jericho teacher's online petition, which gained more than 3,500 signatures in five days, says the state's data lowball the number of teacher infections and should not be used to justify delaying their vaccines. Cudney is among those who believe the state's record keeping is flawed.

"It is critical that the data you are using to determine this disease's risk to school staff is reinvestigated and improved," Cudney wrote in a January 16 letter to Scott.

The pushback comes as some larger districts in Chittenden County have been disrupted by their first cases. All 38 of the Burlington School District's confirmed student and staff cases have cropped up since December 10, sending the district into remote learning for several days. Schools in Essex, too, went remote for a few days this month after a series of cases emerged.

The situation has been especially serious in Winooski, where the district reported that at least 76 out of roughly 1,000 students and staff have tested positive since December 1, and that 200 have been asked to quarantine for various reasons. Over the same time period, the school infection rate is twice the citywide rate, which has also spiked in recent weeks. Still, a district spokesperson said the health department hasn't found evidence that anyone was infected while at school.

The health department posts COVID-19 case data for every Vermont school twice a week. It has counted 325 cases in which an individual was at school while infectious since the pandemic began, up 66 percent from a month ago. The increase is roughly in line with a statewide surge in cases this winter. The total figure remains remarkably low for a system with 75,000 students, but it's not a complete picture of infections among teachers and students.

The state data table only includes instances when an infected person was on school property during their "infectious period," which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines for purposes of contact tracing as beginning 48 hours before experiencing symptoms or receiving a positive test, whichever is first.

In Winooski, 14 of the 76 infected students and staff were at school during their infectious period, the district's communications director, Emily Hecker, said. The state table lists only 10. Winooski officials elected to publicize every case of which they were aware so families would understand why the district needed to go remote, Hecker said.

Cudney's illness in Burlington was among those that did not meet the "infectious period" criterion. The school librarian said she began feeling ill on Tuesday, December 15, while quarantining due to exposure to a positive student. Her last day at the school was the previous Friday, four days earlier.

"Teachers aren't being prioritized for vaccinations because the level of risk potentially involved in our job isn't demonstrated in that chart," Cudney said.

Any count of school-related cases is bound to be an approximation, because the source of an individual's exposure to the virus isn't always clear. Vermont's reporting criteria is more limiting than in states such as Massachusetts, which includes students or employees who were on campus up to seven days before getting sick. Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan said the state's table is intended to convey information on "potential risk."

Jericho Elementary School teacher Samantha Brehm, who started the online vaccine petition, thinks the state should begin tracking and reporting the total number of teachers who have tested positive, regardless of when they were last in school, to better reflect the disruptive effect COVID-19 infections have on school operations. She pressed her position in a letter to Scott this week after her petition took off. The more comprehensive data, she wrote, "will highlight the urgent need to include teachers and school staff in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations."

Dolan said the state is not undercounting school cases. Rather, she said, multiple measures all indicate that case levels and instances of school transmission remain relatively low.

"We don't want to spin this," she said. "We want this to be as accurate as we can ... so we make the right choices."

Beyond the state's borders, some recent studies back up the health department's conclusions. A recent CDC analysis found that the incidence of COVID-19 in counties with in-person learning was no higher than those with remote learning through early December. A preprint paper in the journal Pediatrics found "extremely limited" transmission during the first nine weeks of classes at 11 North Carolina school districts with in-person learning.

Still, other statistical research suggests that schools do spread the virus, particularly as overall community prevalence increases, and more so in high schools.

"Schools can still be the home of outbreaks and drive community transmission," even if they don't often become super-spreaders, two Johns Hopkins University epidemiologists wrote in the Washington Post this month. They nonetheless called for more in-person classes, with mitigation strategies in place and teachers moved "near the front of the line" for vaccination.

The Vermont health department has confirmed 53 cases of in-school transmission as of January 18, up from 31 cases that VTDigger.org reported as of December 15. One of those instances took place in Burlington schools, the district said. Dolan told Seven Days that the department's contact tracers generally presume two cases are linked if the individuals were identified as close contacts and "there is no other more likely source of exposure."

Cudney believes, based on her experience, that the state's standard may be too restrictive. As she pressed district and health department officials for answers about her case, Cudney said she was told the contact tracers didn't believe she'd acquired the virus at school. The alternatives, however, didn't seem any likelier, at least to her. Cudney's husband got sick a couple of days after she did, while her high school- and college-age children tested negative multiple times.

On the other hand, as a teaching specialist, Cudney only taught in the infected student's classroom for 45 minutes each day, and she isn't aware that anyone else in the class, including other teachers, tested positive.

"The thing that was said to me was, 'You could have gotten it from the grocery store,'" she recalled.

The Vermont National Education Association hasn't heard of experiences similar to Cudney's, spokesperson Darren Allen said. The union itself has not seized upon some of its members' demand for better infection data. Allen instead characterized their frustration as a reflection of teachers' legitimate safety concerns.

"In times of uncertainty, in times of confusion, without clear delineation of how and when educators are going to be vaccinated, fear takes over," he said.

For Cudney, exhaustion has, too. After recovering from her infection, she began working half days at school earlier this month. Her stamina still diminished, she's taken long naps each day after returning home. One day last week, a colleague covered for her on recess duty. Cudney used the reprieve to retreat to her office chair, where she fell asleep sitting up.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Significant Figures"