Surging cases may further delay return to school

Jan 12, 2021

School Committee members may consider keeping Dartmouth High School students in remote education through the end of January after discussing an idea to stagger students’ return at a meeting on Jan. 11.

Officials extended a weeklong delay in the return to hybrid learning for a second week following a surge in cases after the winter holiday break. All Dartmouth public school students are set to return in person on Jan. 19.

The high school’s winter sports have also been postponed for a week, due to return on Jan. 19.

As of Jan. 8, there were 300 active Covid-19 cases reported in town.

“I’m deeply concerned that we’re not through the thick of this yet,” said School Committee Vice Chair Dr. Shannon Jenkins at the meeting. “Our test positivity rate is 13.25% in the town...Rhode Island has the highest rate of per capita Covid diagnoses in the nation.”

“We made the decision to put our school when the positivity rate [was] 10 cases per week,” she said. “We have about 300 cases per week. And that’s a very different calculus.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford noted that delaying a return to in-person learning was helpful to district staff and administrators given the current Covid situation. 

“What we came back to after the holiday — the number of cases that would have come into the school...We would have never been able to keep up with it,” she said, adding that just that day there were 25 more cases among students and staff. 

“Luckily they hadn’t been in [school], because we’ve been remote,” she noted.

Jenkins suggested keeping high school classes remote until the end of the grading period. 

“It makes a sort of a natural transition,” she said. “I would like to see us think about doing a slow roll back to face-to-face like we did in the fall.”

She added that high schoolers usually require minimal supervision, so keeping them at home is less of a burden to parents.

“High schoolers can be independent,” she said. “Plus, high school kids are crossing paths far more often.”

Dr. Gifford confirmed that returning elementary students to school is a priority. “Pre-K skills are most the difficult to teach without having them at school,” she noted.

School Committee members agreed that they all wanted to see kids back in school — it was simply a matter of when.

“Ending at a natural break, we’d be talking about another two full weeks out,” said member John Nunes. “If we can get them in, get them in.”

Dr. Gifford noted that Public Health Director Chris Michaud had told her earlier that day that the surge is far from over. 

“We’re not over this, and we’re just seeing the real beginning of what’s out there,” she cited Michaud as saying.

Officials said a decision on whether to further delay the return to school would likely be made later this week.

Meanwhile, Dartmouth Public Schools will most likely not be participating in a new scheme from the state government to bring pooled Covid tests to schools after officials rejected the plan.

Governor Charlie Baker announced the program for pooled testing in schools on Jan. 8. 

The approach involves mixing several samples together to test in a “batch” or “pool,” according to the website, which would allow more people to be tested using the same resources. If the pooled test is negative, then everyone in the pool is presumed negative.

Initial costs would be assumed by the state’s education department, with towns responsible for continuing the program using federal stimulus funds.

“We’re not seeing any value in it,” said Dr. Gifford, adding that she and Michaud agreed it would only be useful if every group of students — classes, teams, even those who travel together on the bus — could be tested. 

“It’s a one-week snapshot,” she said. “And who’s doing all this work?”

Dr. Gifford added that the town is not currently seeing Covid transmission in schools.

This article has been updated to clarify that while all students are currently set to return on Jan. 19, officials may delay the return for high schoolers longer than for elementary students.