Editor’s note: This commentary is by Brian G. Ricca, who is superintendent of schools in St. Johnsbury.
On Sunday, Sept. 27, I got a phone call from one of my principals. On my personal cellphone. On the weekend. Often those calls are not good news. This one wasn’t.
A member of our St. Johnsbury School community had a positive test for Covid-19.
I will be honest, I expected this to happen this year, I didn’t think it would happen in September. I thought we would have more time to prepare.
Sunday afternoon quickly turned into a work afternoon and evening.
In consultation with our local health department, we decided for all students to learn remotely on Monday. This decision was driven by the fact that the contact tracing would not be complete by the time our school day started on Monday. I sent out a message to our entire school community, letting them know the circumstances and assured them I would keep in touch as the situation evolved.
A limited number of adults went to the building on Monday and we put our heads together about the next steps. The reality was that we could not make any more decisions until we heard back from the health department with the results of the contact tracing. I’m proud of the fact that we were able to furnish our medical professionals with contact logs promptly, and that our adults kept accurate track of those who had been in their rooms for more than 15 minutes.
On Monday afternoon, we learned from the health department that the positive test was limited to our 5th Grade Family, and they also confirmed they had completed their contact tracing phone calls. My message to the community that afternoon was that while our 5th Grade Family would continue to stay remote for at least the remainder of the week, everyone else was welcome to return to school on Tuesday. Also, I informed everyone that if they did not receive a phone call, they were not considered a close contact. In other words, no news was good news.
We stayed in touch with the health department on Tuesday, but there were no updates. On Wednesday, though, we received the best news yet. The member of our school community who had tested positive went to a local hospital and retested, and the results were negative. The health department called our Covid coordinator and confirmed that the test was negative. We did not have a member of our school community with Covid-19.
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How was that possible?
The first test was an antigen test, also known as a rapid test. State guidelines recommend antigen testing only for people with symptoms. According to Seven Days, “Vermont is one of fifteen states that do not count positive results from antigen tests as confirmed COVID-19 cases.” Instead, the state relies on polymerase chain reaction or PCR tests, which take longer to return results.
Now, please understand. I’m not writing this to quibble with state guidelines. I am not writing this to question the work of the health department. As my own children remind me all the time, I’m not a real doctor, and I leave medical decisions to the medical professionals.
Why am I writing this? I’m wondering aloud what the impact is of our seemingly overall need to have information instantly or rapidly, as the test is often called. I’m just as guilty as anyone else. I look to my Twitter feed for information because it’s in my pocket, and I can get to it quickly. Banner headlines tell the stories of “Breaking News,” which occasionally isn’t verified and turns out is untrue. Far too often, we are deluged with notifications and red dots on our phone, demanding that we “check-in” and “connect.”
I’ve been asked if we would have done anything differently if the health department had informed us we had a “presumptive positive case,” instead of a positive case. I can’t answer that question myself. I am grateful to the School Board that I serve, as they delegated the decision-making during this state of emergency to me. I am also incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a team of professionals on the reopening task force that will help me find a way to answer that question.
This team committed to physical distancing – we are in a hybrid model currently. This team committed to 6 feet apart. This team committed to modeling mask-wearing anytime we are in the building. This team committed to washing hands often, free-standing dispenser stations, and plenty of people to clean our building daily. All of this is in the guidance from the state, and you know what? It works.
How do I know it works? Because no students were close contacts in this situation. Let me say that again. In our school building, with a hybrid model, with mask-wearing, washing hands, and daily cleaning, not one student was a close contact.
Thank you to the members of the reopening task force. I’m proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with this team. That team, along with our wonderful faculty and staff, make education work daily during a global health pandemic. These are all the people that made this entire situation work.
Even if it was a false positive.