As Covid-19 cases rise, what should trigger a decision to close Vermont schools?

Kids attending the Part 2 Kids childcare hub at the Allen Brook School in Williston get a breakfast as they arrive at school in September. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As Vermont struggles to contain a record-breaking surge in Covid-19 cases and officials brace for superspreading holiday get-togethers, one question is on the tip of the tongue for every teacher, parent and principal.

“I get asked multiple times a day, do you think the state will ever shut down the schools again?” said David Younce, president of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

Vermont is something of an outlier in America, which, by and large, has kept public schools closed even as other sectors of the economy have reopened. The U.S. approach stands in stark contrast to most of Europe and Canada, which have kept schools open even as most other sectors have been shut down in the wake of a second wave of the coronavirus.

Vermont officials have declined to set a particular threshold at which viral spread would dictate widespread school closures, whether statewide or in a particular region. New York City’s widely criticized decision to shutter schools once the seven-day average positivity rate hit 3 percent, they say, is an example of how too-simple metrics can backfire.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine argues the state should monitor a series of metrics — including case counts, health care capacity and viral reproductive rates — along with on-the-ground conditions to make case-by-case determinations.

“We’re being thoughtful, rather than just algorithmic,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday. “Sometimes being thoughtful allows more flexibility and allows people to still have the things they want — like the ability to send their kids to schools — than if we had been much more draconian.”

Levine said it is “plausible — but not likely” — that the state could one day move preemptively to close schools in a particular region in the event of a severe spike in Covid-19. A combination of a surge in new cases, he said, and the local hospital system nearing capacity could theoretically prompt such a decision.

But he thinks it’s much more likely that operational concerns — namely, staffing — will close down a school building before deteriorating health conditions require it. 

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The Vermont Department of Health hasn’t often recommended that a school close outright when cases have popped up in the building, and instead typically recommends that a particular class or pod must temporarily pivot to remote learning. But superintendents sometimes opt to close anyway, usually because the number of staff members required to quarantine make it impossible to keep the school open.

“That’s the way it’s played out even before we had a surge in cases. That’s generally what happens,” Levine said.

Research from early in the pandemic suggested schools were not a major driver of community transmission, and Vermont’s experience with the virus this fall appears to bear that out. 

Public health authorities say that within-school transmission has indeed occurred, most notably at Union Elementary in Montpelier. And Levine acknowledges that it isn’t always possible to know for sure where an infection occurred, or who infected whom. But the vast majority of cases of the virus connected to schools have been acquired outside the building, he said, not inside.

The state has also begun large-scale, voluntary surveillance testing of school employees. The first round was completed last week, and state officials said Friday that, of the 9,389 surveillance tests conducted, only 21 came back positive.

Findings from UVM study

“Schools — provided that they are following appropriate mitigation strategies — really have not been significant centers for transmission,” said Ben Lee, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. “And so in that context, to me, it makes little sense to shut down areas that aren’t really driving community transmission.”

Lee, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, recently co-authored a study modeling the impact of school reopening on community transmission for the journal BMC Public Health. The model, which used contact data from Shanghai, China, generally supported the pandemic-era adage that schools should be the last to close, and first to reopen.

It found that open schools for children under 10 had the least impact on community transmission, and that the risk of in-person learning for older children could be significantly lessened if adults and students reduced their contacts.

“Our modeling work predicts that if the entire community is in lockdown, there are ways that schools can remain open,” Lee said.

Ultimately, Lee believes that any metric or cutoff will be in some sense arbitrary, and that there is little consensus about what a safe threshold is. But he agrees with Levine that having staff out of commission — either because they’re sick or in quarantine — will require closures before viral transmission makes it necessary from a public health perspective.

“If the school operationally can’t function just because of staff limitations, then there’s really no way to overcome that. That’s a real obstacle that can’t necessarily be overcome,” he said.

It would be nice to know

Younce, who oversees schools in the Mill River Unified School District, a four-town district in rural Rutland County, is sympathetic to the argument that the decision to close schools preemptively is complicated. But he still wishes there were a way to make it more predictable for local officials and communities.

“Knowing if there was a threshold that would trigger a certain response — that lets me just see what’s on the horizon. And it lets me make decisions, communicate with families,” he said.

And while the state’s surgical approach to recommending closures — a classroom here, a pod here — in theory helps maximize in-person instruction, the “tangled web of quarantine dynamics” means school officials are left scrambling to adequately staff their buildings.

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And for schools, that can mean political fallout, too.

“How does the public see that decision to close down because we don’t have staff available? That doesn’t make sense to folks who say, ‘We’re following all the rules, but your people aren’t able to stay at work?’ You know, it’s a really, really treacherous place to be,” Younce said.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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