Union Elementary School students are wrapping up their first week of in-person learning following a one-week detour to online education in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak that involved seven members of the school community.
The cases were linked to a larger spread of the virus that was traced to activities at the Central Vermont Memorial Civic Center, which had reached 112 cases as of Monday, Nov. 2.
Officials at UES say the school’s safety protocols are working well.
“What has been so incredible to see is how resilient our students, families, and staff members are as we experience these challenges,” principal Ryan Heraty told The Bridge. “They have been able to flexibly shift from in-person to remote and back to in-person quickly in a way that makes children feel supported and safe.”
While Heraty was not able to comment on the cases of the infected individuals, he said he feels “very good about our protocols and procedures” going forward. He also noted that the Health Department commended the school system on their safety processes and pod system.
The infected people are self-quarantining, and the Department of Health conducted contact tracing for them. However, since the Department of Health does not recommend any further action for the school, they plan to remain open.
The elementary school’s cleaning plan closely follows the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and the Vermont Agency of Education. Common spaces and frequently touched surfaces, including bathrooms, door handles, desks, and eating spaces, must be sanitized a minimum of three times a day. Windows are open for as long as possible to circulate the air inside the building, and all HVAC filters were replaced in the past year.
Households were also mailed a “Daily Health Checklist” back in late August to help parents and guardians determine whether their child is healthy enough to attend school in person. According to the checklist, students should stay home if they have a fever of over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, if they were recently exposed to someone with COVID-19, or if they participated in high-risk travel requiring quarantine as per state guidelines.
The list also asks students to stay home if they have a cough, runny nose, chills, headaches, and other symptoms that could be caused by something other than COVID-19. In a virtual Q&A at the beginning of the school year, school nurse Megan Spaulding helped to decipher the ambiguity of the checklist. “What I like to tell families is that, if you blow your nose once in a day it’s okay, if you blow it twice in the day that’s fine, but what we’re talking about is kids who have lots of dripping, or maybe it’s green or yellow, or you’re congested.” She reminded parents to always err on the side of caution.
The school has also implemented a pod system in which students and faculty are placed into small groups that have their own designated classroom, bathrooms, and eating areas. The system helps to significantly reduce the number of close contacts a person has on a daily basis.
Heraty said that the school will begin to reduce the time students are eating indoors and will implement a screening ticket to be completed by families each day. These changes are more related to the changing weather and difficulty with checking temperatures outdoors than they are related to the recent uptick in cases, but he said he does see them as “being helpful” to the overall prevention of the virus.
As of Nov. 3, the Department of Health recorded 112 COVID-19 cases linked to the ice sports league outbreak in Washington County. Seven schools have been impacted by the outbreak: Union Elementary School, South Burlington High School, Williston Central School, Barre Elementary School, Montpelier High School, Oxbow Union High School, and Frances C. Richmond Middle School in Hanover, New Hampshire.
While Union Elementary is back in class, COVID-19 still poses a threat to school communities. Doty Memorial School in Worcester decided to close down for one week starting Nov. 2, after one school member tested positive for the disease. The case is not considered to be related to the ice rink outbreak.
Superintendent Bryan Olkowski said that this experience “really points to the importance in following the health and safety guidance with fidelity.” While faculty members were prepared enough to provide students with both digital and print learning materials, Olkowski hopes that this week will help them to better prepare for remote learning situations in the future.
Not all schools with coronavirus cases shut down operations. According to the Barre Unified Union School District superintendent David Wells, a member of the Barre City Middle and Elementary School and a member of the Barre Town Middle and Elementary School both self-reported that they had tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 22.