More school districts are announcing positive COVID-19 cases, prompting a handful of schools and over a thousand students to go to remote learning plans this week.
The early cases have been a trial run for the state health department and many school districts, which have spent months preparing for the chance of a positive case that could force quarantines or temporary building closures.
As of Wednesday, the state’s COVID-19 Schools Dashboard listed 11 elementary or high schools with at least one active coronavirus case, but that doesn't include cases currently under investigation.
Windham High School Remote After Party Leads to Outbreak
The state’s largest K-12 outbreak so far has occurred in Windham, where a party that included members of the high school's sports teams led to the infection of 10 students. By the end of the state’s contact investigation, 20 students had tested positive for COVID-19. Family members also tested positive, and all household contacts were told to quarantine for two weeks.
The outbreak prompted the school to begin classes remotely rather than with a hybrid model, and as more contact tracing revealed the extent of transmission, the district postponed reopening twice.
“We’re kind of on an emotional rollercoaster,” said Allyna Ward, an English teacher at Windham High School. “It's hard to plan. It's hard to get ready to go back, to mentally prepare yourself to see 400 kids, and then to find out that you're not the night before.”
Ward said the school should stick with a plan long enough that teachers can prepare lessons and plan for a particular model. She and other teachers told NHPR that the constant shifts between remote and hybrid models lead to burnout for teachers, who are already anxious about the school’s ability to maintain social distancing and proper sanitation when students return later this week. (The district declined multiple interview requests from NHPR.)
For many educators and students, the Windham outbreak confirmed fears about reopening high schools: even if you control school buildings, not everyone will follow public health protocols in their free time.
“There’s always going to be a group of people that doesn’t care,” said Windham High School senior Elizabeth Martin. “People were mad about it, but it was like: Of course this is going to happen.”
Martin said she's eager to return to school for hands-on work in her engineering and art classes, but she said many of her peers are bracing for the next positive case.
Joel Desilets, a Windham state representative and real estate investor, is more optimistic.
“I’m talking to some of the parents and I know the families [with positive cases],” he said. “I think the lesson is learned and the damage is limited.”
Challenges and Lessons Emerge from Early Cases
While state health officials are regularly in touch with districts after news of a positive case, the Department of Health and Human Services leaves it up to districts to decide whether to shut schools.
Beth Daly, chief of the state Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said switching last minute to a remote model was the right call for Windham.
“Certainly this presents challenges to families and the staff and having to adapt your personal lives and schedules to accommodate changes,” she said. “But unfortunately, that's the era we're living in.”
Daly says contact tracing with teenagers is especially complicated, in part because of the number of people they interact with, and because many don’t want to get their friends in trouble.
“If you identify a friend as being a close contact, then that person will likely go into quarantine,” she said. “And nobody wants to be responsible for quarantining their friend.”
The state’s reopening guidance recommends that schools keep students in small cohorts to reduce transmission and to help the state conduct contact tracing. So far, several districts say these safety measures are paying off.
In Litchfield, after a kindergartener tested positive for COVID-19, the school chose to keep all students who had been on the bus with that student home until contact tracing was done.
Eventually, health officials identified six students who had been in close contact with the kindergartener on the bus. Those students were put into remote learning, along with several staff and the whole kindergarten class.
“Remote learning with kindergarten, for kids who have only been in school for three days, has been clunky,” said Superintendent Mike Jette. “But you have to celebrate that wearing masks, sanitizing, social distancing and cohorting kind of paid off.”
When Schools Stay Open, Families Weigh Risk
With the decision to close buildings ultimately left to local districts, superintendents are weighing the risk of transmission against the disruption of switching to a remote model.
Bedford has had six confirmed cases of COVID-19, but superintendent Mike Fournier has not quarantined classes or shut down any buildings because state and district officials have determined there were limited close contacts, he said. (The state defines “close contact” as within six feet for more than ten minutes.)
Merrimack Valley superintendent Mark MacLean said state officials told him it was not necessary to quarantine an entire class after two positive cases were identified at Penacook Elementary School. But he decided to anyway.
This variability puts families in a tricky spot: Should they trust the district’s process and, in some cases, send kids immediately back to school? Keep them home for several days until the district releases more information? Or go for a fully-remote option?
In Windham, early numbers suggest that news of positive cases has pushed more families to opt for a remote option. Before the high school outbreak, teachers say only 100 students were signed up for the all-remote model. By last week, that number had jumped to 170.
Then came an announcement this week of positive cases at the Windham elementary schools. Lynnsey Shaughnessy, whose daughter attends one of those schools and whose son has serious health conditions, said it upended her family’s already fragile sense of routine.
“You get that pit in your stomach, and it's devastating news,” she said. “I feel like if I pull her [from school], then it's devastating to her. But if I send her and something happens, then it's even more devastating.”
Because of health privacy laws, Shaunessey didn’t know whether the students were in her daughter’s class, further complicating her decision-making. With a district deadline for families to opt into a long-term remote model just hours away, Shaughnessey decided to pull her daughter out of the hybrid model. She said the elementary school was doing everything in its power to operate safely, but the potential risk of exposure felt too great.
“It was the only choice given the information we had,” she said.
Positive Cases Pose Staffing Problems For Districts
The early positive coronavirus cases in schools are posing another challenge to districts: staffing shortages.
In Bedford, the likelihood of quarantining staff and the arrival of flu season have prompted the district to hire permanent substitute teachers. The district is now advertising non-union positions for each building with guaranteed work four days a week, at $110 per day.
Newmarket Junior Senior High School went to remote teaching this week after a positive COVID-19 case in an employee. Superintendent Susan Givens informed the school community this worker “had close contact with other staff who maintain day to day operations of the school.” The entire school is going remote until early October.
Read and listen to more stories in NHPR's series, COVID & The Classroom. Email us story tips to email@example.com