Message from Superintendent Nease: Update and Lessons Learned from COVID

Tuesday Sept. 15th, 2020

Good evening HUUSD Community-

I am writing to update you about the current status of Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS), the positive COVID cases there, and how it is playing out in our district. First, I want to say I couldn't be more pleased at how our admin and nurses teams, staff, and parents have managed this situation. Our district was the first to work in depth with the VT Dept. of Health (VDH) as both agencies took that test run with the carefully planned protocols to conduct contact tracing in the public school setting. Overall it went very well, but there are lessons learned. Principal Drake and I determined some additional steps we will take districtwide in the future in addition to the medical requirements of contact tracing. These additional steps should help to manage communication better. Here is how the story goes:

On Sunday afternoon, (9-13) Principal Drake was notified by VDH that we had two students test positive at CBMS, one in grade 5 and one in 7. Covid Coordinator Nurse Allison Conyers, CBMS Nurse Kathryn Saunders, Principal Drake and I met and began our work in consultation with VDH. 

Step 1 was to complete the data sheet to send to VDH. This included using our protocols and involved two teams in the core pods, some limited cross over in applied academics classes, and the bus, which also had Harwood students on it (none from TBPS). The list sent to VDH included 48 students and 14 teachers/staff. From there the protocol is that the contact with the families comes from VDH. VDH determines who should quarantine. So we got busy on the next level of the protocol.

Step 2 was to send out the community message. We determined that CBMS would move to totally remote for the week because of the number of students and staff affected. At this point we were unsure how long the contact tracing process would take. All students would have been working in the 4-1 model, with four days remote and 1 in person for the week. This decision meant that students would receive 4 days of instruction as originally planned but not receive that one day of in person instruction-the bad news.The good news is we were very easily able to pivot to a remote learning day with our schedules and well prepared teacher plans for these students.

Lessons learned quickly surfaced. Email started to pour in with all sorts of very reasonable questions. We realized the recommended letter sent was not enough. The protocol needs to be changed. In the future, after we send the required contact list to VDH, the community letter will go out and then we will add 1) a letter to all families on the list alerting them to the fact that they may receive a call from VDH contact tracers; and 2) a letter to all families in the affected building letting them know that if they did not receive a letter stating they were put on the list to VDH they are in the clear.

Other lessons learned are contact tracing can take longer than 24 hours, which is the timeline we understood from our training. The contact tracers were not able to begin until Monday morning at 8:00. As of this Tuesday morning at 10:30 contact was not made with all families. Several attempts are sometimes necessary before a family can be reached.

After the contact tracing process our numbers changed to 22 students (the 2 positive cases, another 16 students from CBMS and 4 from HUHS) and 4 teachers that needed quarantine. You can get a test 7 days after exposure (today), and tests are expected back within 24-48 hours. If you have a negative test you may return to school/work. If you choose not to get a test, you must quarantine for 14 days. We await the results of 24 students/staff. Recommendations we have for VDH moving forward include expediting test results for Vermont teachers and contact trace the adults first to enable schools to remain open given the shortage of substitutes. 

In response to why we closed CBMS the answer is twofold -the number of students and staff on the contact list and that they were spread throughout the building. The good news is based on our strictly adhered to protocols and training, the list of possible staff/students exposed to a level of concern was greatly reduced by the contact tracers. Keeping the 6 foot distance, wearing masks, disinfecting surfaces, and not sharing materials paid off. 

When we receive positive cases within a school, our intention is to only close schools partially to the greatest extent possible. For example, this will be much easier at the elementary level, where there is more ability to close one or two classrooms based on the contacts. However, we do need to include the buses. The higher up in the grades you go the more difficult it is because of the individual classes students take. Our goal is to keep schools open for in person instruction as much as possible. When we do need to close, we will do everything we can to reopen for in person days as quickly as possible, while maintaining strict adherence to physical and emotional safety for staff and students. Each COVID event will be considered carefully and individually. As a point of context, in some Vermont districts the standard is not individualized, but rather if there is a positive COVID-19 case in a building, all staff and students of that building will revert to remote learning until there are no new cases identified for 14 consecutive days.

Another question we were frequently asked is if HUHS students were close contacts due to the bus ride, why weren't more students and staff from HUHS put on the list for contact tracing. The answer is those students could not have been contagious immediately that day while in attendance at HUHS. So that seems to be where the contact tracing chain ends. One area that also generated many questions, where we need to learn more is what about siblings of students placed on the list? Since siblings are not part of our school protocol based on physical proximity, it is up to the VDH contact tracers to determine that with the family.

Lastly, as a reminder we are moving all HUUSD schools into the 2-1-2 model beginning next Monday, 9/21. The Tuesday groups will now be in person Monday and Tuesday and the Thursday groups in person Thursday and Friday. All students remain remote on Wednesdays. Families will receive more specific information from classroom teachers and newsletters/blogs from building principals. Nothing about our recent experience at CBMS changes our thinking to move forward at this time. 

We all understand that we need to provide a solid year for our students with learning experiences on both remote and in person days that are as robust as possible.  In order to reach the greatest levels of success as this COVID year progresses, we need the highest levels of flexibility, acceptance that we will need to pivot  quickly on any given day, understanding, and support for the staff and administration making these decisions. It would be most helpful if as a community we refrain from comparing district to district in the state. The number of different variables are many. As you heard in the news today, The Hartford district remained open with 1 positive case at the high school and no close contacts. In contrast, we have 24 close contacts and 2 positive cases. 

In closing, I look forward to our Community Forum at 6:30 on Monday evening Sept. 21st, and as always welcome your thoughts and questions. In truth our teams debriefed today and we feel really good about how this event was handled and played out. Safety is maintained, confidence in living in the COVID "new school" world is growing, and our summer hours of planning really paid off. Our hope is that our families and community feel good about it too. We got this HUUSD! Let's model for the rest of the state how to keep schools open as much as possible, not spread the virus, and keep everyone emotionally and physically safe. Our district cannot succeed alone. We need each and every family and business in the community to be committed to our common goal.

With warm regards,

Brigid Nease

 

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