Gov. John Carney on Tuesday urged schools to resume hybrid learning Jan. 11, arguing that schools are safe despite a sustained increase in coronavirus cases in Delaware.
“As we have said many times, we do not believe there is a public health reason to close schools,” Carney wrote in a letter to schools, which was also signed by public health director Dr. Karyl Rattay and education secretary Susan Bunting. “We have spent the past four weeks helping schools try to address the operational challenges they are experiencing. And we can all agree that students learn best when they’re in school. For all of these reasons, we are recommending that districts and schools make every effort to return to hybrid learning on Jan. 11.”
If schools have “operational challenges” – such as too many staff members in quarantine or isolation – districts should prioritize elementary school students, students with special needs, English learners, low-income students and students without access to the internet, he said.
Before the school year began, the state laid out criteria for schools reopening, based on the number of new cases, the percent of tests coming back positive and the number of hospitalizations. In all three categories, the current numbers well exceed the threshold for keeping schools closed.
However, officials said they have no evidence of schools being a significant cause of coronavirus infections. Carney cited a Centers for Disease Control study of schools in Mississippi, which found that children who tested positive were more likely to have attended play dates or large events outside of school but were not more likely to have attended in-person classes.
Delaware’s epidemiologists have seen the same thing, Carney said.
“It’s a testament to the hard work of students, educators and staff that the number of COVID-positive students and staff is so low,” he said. “Moreover, data from our epidemiologists shows that the vast majority of cases affecting students and staff originated outside of the school building. The few cases thought to result from in-school spread are frequently observed to be in settings where mask wearing was not consistently practiced.”
According to data made public Tuesday, 579 students and 546 staff members have tested positive statewide. Those numbers include anyone who tested positive or developed symptoms within 48 hours of being in a school building, and officials noted the cases cannot necessarily be attributed to the schools.
Locally, the Christina School District has seen 17 students and 42 staff members test positive. The state has not disclosed building-level data.
Christina started a phased reopening in late October, bringing students back grade by grade for two days of in-person classes per week. On Nov. 24, however, the district abruptly went back to all virtual learning.
Deputy Assistant Superintendent Deirdra Aikens explained at the time that on any given day, the district could have 20 or more staff members self-quarantining after exposure to COVID-19.
“It’s really an operational issue,” she said.
Christina was slated to resume its hybrid schedule Dec. 7, but extended that through Jan. 11 after Carney urged schools to remain all-virtual through the holidays.
Late Tuesday, Christina Superintendent Dan Shelton wrote in a letter to parents that the district will resume hybrid learning for all students, pre-K through 12th grade, starting Jan. 11.
Students are divided into two “cohorts.” Cohort A will attend in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays, and Cohort B will attend Thursdays and Fridays. When not in class, students will continue with virtual learning. All students will be virtual on Wednesdays to allow teachers to provide enrichment and intervention support.
“We take the health and safety of our students and our employees very seriously and will be closely monitoring each of our buildings as students and staff return to hybrid learning,” Shelton said. “We know from the data that we have collected that remote learning does not lead to the outcomes we want both in student engagement and learning.”
School leaders will require masks for all students and staff, make frequent announcements about hand hygiene and continue frequent sanitation protocols.
Shelton said air purifiers have been installed at the Brennan School and the Christina Early Childhood Education Center, with plans to install them in other schools. Ventilation was a major concern among many teachers who expressed concerns about reopening earlier in the school year.