Should Delaware have a statewide plan for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing in schools?
Schools in the First State are largely operating in a hybrid mode – a mix of in-person and remote learning. But keeping them in that mode or eventually moving to a full reopening requires keeping spread of COVID-19 in check.
A group called S.A.F.E Schools believes to make that happen there needs to be a statewide standard for testing and contact tracing in Delaware schools. And it’s sent a letter to Gov. Carney asking for just that.
Contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer at what this group is seeking and the response from the state and schools.
S.A.F.E. Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and advocates seeking equity in education, is asking Gov. John Carney to require standard COVID-19 testing and contact tracing protocols in all of Delaware’s public schools.
The group’s prime concern is that the coronavirus pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on both the health and educational progress of residents of low-income and minority communities.
But some in the education community, while not opposing expanded testing, are essentially saying, “Whoa. Not so fast.”
“School boards are very interested in schools being able to reopen safely, however that works,” says John Marinucci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association. But, he adds, with many districts now transitioning from remote learning programs into hybrid instructional models, “we’re just beginning to see kids in the classrooms again. We’re learning as we go.”
“If they decide they’re testing everybody, we would not oppose it,” says Courtney Fox, head of First State Montessori Academy in Wilmington.
But some school officials point out that a testing mandate could run afoul of state and federal laws, and possibly the state Constitution.
"Across the country and in our state, Latinx and Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This impact cannot be separated from education." S.A.F.E. Schools co-chair Sarah Green
Currently, the state makes free testing available on a four-week cycle to all school personnel and requires schools to work with the Division of Public Health whenever there is a positive test within the school community to determine whether quarantines or contact tracing should be initiated. Testing of students is recommended but not required. Districts and charter schools may implement stricter procedures.
Two schools – Woodbridge High and Sussex Tech – have closed already this fall because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Woodbridge is expected to reopen on Nov. 9 after a two-week shutdown. Sussex Tech, which has limited in-person instruction, has closed twice for two days each time.
S.A.F.E. Schools (the acronym stands for Safe, Accountable, Forward, Equitable) wrote to Carney on Oct. 29. Its co-chairs, Sarah Green and Shannon Griffin, who is also senior policy advocate at ACLU Delaware, say that Carney’s office will meet with them Monday afternoon to discuss the request. The meeting is expected to include representatives of the key offices involved in the issue: the Department of Education, the Division of Public Health and the Delaware Emergency Management Agency.
For now, the governor’s intention appears to be to maintain the programs already in place.
“We've been working with district and school leaders statewide to provide various testing options for teachers, students and their families. There is also significant community testing available where and when Delawareans need it.,” said Jonathan Starkey, the governor’s spokesman. “We'll continue to offer free, accessible testing options because testing for COVID-19 is the best way to track spread of the virus, and respond to potential outbreaks. We can only get more Delaware children back in school if we do it safely.”
“Across the country and in our state, Latinx and Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” Green said. “This impact cannot be separated from education. Historic inequities have created a situation where Black and Latinx families are now most likely to have to send their students to school for in-person learning which then puts those students, their families, and their educators at a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure.”
By issuing recommendations, rather than requirements, on school reopening procedures earlier this year, the state is “creating inequitable outcomes from one community to the next,” the letter states.
Policies and procedures “are different at every single location,” says Green, who has a child attending Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington. Concerns are particularly high in Wilmington, she says, because of its high concentrations of low-income and minority families and the large number of districts and charter schools serving city students, which could result in households have to follow two or more differing sets of guidelines.
It is especially important that these students receive in-person learning, Green and Griffin say, because the adults in their households are less likely to be working from home and are less likely to have the resources to guide their children in a remote learning environment.
"A unified plan, at least for the county, would be good so those who don't attend our schools would be following the same rules." -New Castle County Vo-Tech School District superintendent Joe Jones.
Joe Jones, superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District, says mandated testing would make sense. He oversees four high schools located throughout the county and siblings of his students are attending schools from Brandywine in the north to Appoquinimink in the southern part of the county. “A unified plan, at least for the county, would be good so those who don’t attend our schools would be following the same rules,” he said.
S.A.F.E. Schools, a group created in April to advocate for education equity and fair discipline practices in Delaware Schools, has partnerships with the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, Building People Power (a campaign launched by the Urban League), ACLU Delaware and Network Delaware.
Legislators endorsing the letter to Carney included Sens. Laura Sturgeon, Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman and Bruce Ennis; Sen.-elect Sarah McBride; State Reps. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, Gerald Brady, Kim Williams and Valerie Longhurst, and Wilmington City Councilwoman-elect Shané Darby. Groups that endorsed the letter include Delaware CAN, First State Educate, the Wilmington Center for Education Equity and Policy, the Delaware Center for Justice, Black Mothers in Power and the Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow.
The letter cites a testing requirement for in-person instruction at Eastside Charter School in Wilmington, saying it has enabled the school “to stay safely open since Sept. 16 with zero positive cases.”
Aaron Bass, the school’s CEO, says that families must agree to regular testing if the want in-person learning for their children. “If they refuse testing, they must learn remotely,” he says. About one-third of the students in the K-8 school and half of the staff are now learning or working inside the building.
The school nurse administers tests to all staff and students on Monday or Tuesday of each week. Test results are returned within 24 hours. Any staff member or student who tests positive must have a subsequent negative test before re-entering the school’s “bubble.” The only positive case since the start of the school year involved a staff member who contracted the virus while away from the school and was required to quarantine before returning to school, Bass said.
Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said she is working with other charter schools interested in replicating Eastside’s program but says she doesn’t believe testing requirements have to be “one size fits all.” To implement a program, she says, schools need “capacity,” meaning a nurse or other professional on staff trained to administer the tests, label and send the samples to the lab and take the appropriate actions when the results are returned.
Testing, Massett says, is only one of the steps that schools – and individuals – should be taking. “You can go to the grocery store and get sneezed on,” she says, “so you’ve got to layer all these things: testing, masks and social distancing.”
Adds Michele Marinucci, head of the Academy of Dover, a K-6 charter school, “you can’t just rely on testing. You can be negative today and positive tomorrow.”
You can go to the grocery store and get sneezed on, so you've got to layer all these things testing, masks and social distancing." - Delaware Charter Schools Network Exec. Dir. Kendall Massett
School officials tend to agree that, in theory, more testing throughout the system would be beneficial. “The more that people can get tested, it’s certainly helpful,” says Fox of First State Montessori.
But there are concerns about a mandate. One is that it would infringe on parents’ rights to “choice,” a core value in the charter school movement, Marinucci says.
Another is that a testing requirement could be considered a violation of the state Constitution, which says the state must have “a general and efficient of free public schools, and may require by law that every child … shall attend the public school, unless educated by other means.”
“Our responsibility to students is to provide a free public education,” says Jon Cooper, director of the behavioral health division of the Colonial School District and Colonial’s COVID-19 coordinator.
Mandating testing “has a very strong common-sense appeal,” Cooper says, “but it clashes with the reality of the school’s obligation to provide a free and appropriate education,” even to those who decline to be tested for the virus.
Similarly, Cooper says, mandating testing for school personnel by making it a condition of employment could have implications with regard to the state’s labor laws.
There is a measure of irony in school officials raising this constitutional issue as an objection to a testing mandate since ACLU Delaware, in addition to its affiliation with S.A.F.E. Schools, has been providing legal representations to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that has relied in part on the same clause in the state Constitution to challenge the state education funding system. (That suit, filed in the Court of Chancery, has resulted in a mediated settlement in which the state has pledged to increase spending on behalf of low-income and special needs students. Still pending is a ruling on how to reform the counties’ outdated property assessment system that provides the base for levying school taxes.)
While S.A.F.E. Schools is calling for a uniform contact tracing protocol throughout the public school system, educators interviewed this week all described a similar rubric: following a positive test, contact a designated epidemiologist at the Division of Public Health, go through an interview process to review all the details in the case, then follow the epidemiologist’s recommendations for contact tracing, quarantine and any closure of a classroom, grade level or an entire school.
Colonial, with 15 schools, has had three COVID-related incidents this fall, Cooper said. In each case, emails were sent to families, and notifications were posted on school and district websites and social media pages. None of them required closing a classroom or school.
Since in-person instruction resumed Oct. 19 in the vo-tech district, the district has issued notices of two positive tests, one at Delcastle Technical High School, the other at Howard High School of Technology. The cases originated in the community, not at the schools, and several students and employees have been required to quarantine for 14 days, Jones said.
First State Montessori and Academy of Dover, as part of their reopening plans, have established operating procedures that facilitate contact tracing, should it be needed.
At the Montessori school, class sizes have been reduced to 12 to 14 students, and students remain in the same room for the four hours they are in the building four days a week. There is a log posted on each classroom door, Fox says. Anyone other than the teacher and students in the room, must sign in and out and identify anyone with whom they were in contact while in the room.
So far, the school has had two positive COVID cases, one student and one staff member, and both originated outside the school, Fox said. About 20 people were identified as having contact with those individuals and were required to quarantine for 14 days. If an entire class must be quarantined, it would be shifted to remote learning until the quarantine is lifted.
At Academy of Dover, the school has purchased additional video cameras to record all activities within the building, Michele Marinucci said. (She is the wife of John Marinucci, the Delaware School Boards Association’s executive director.) Students stay in one classroom where their desks are six feet apart, even for breakfast and lunch, except for gym periods and recess, she said. Only one classroom of students goes outside for recess at a time. The gym floor is marked with tape so students stay at least six feet apart.
With the use of the security cameras, the school can track the movement of any student or staff member who might test positive, determine whether they were wearing masks properly and keeping a safe distances from others in the school community, Marinucci said.
Since opening in late August, the school has had one positive COVID-19 case, Marinucci said. A parent tested positive from contact away from the school, and the child tested positive a day later. Using the school’s cameras, the staff was able to verify that the student did not have contact with anyone at the levels that would have required anyone to quarantine.
In another episode, siblings in first and second grade exhibited symptoms and were sent home, prompting the school to shut down those grade levels for a couple of days, Marinucci said. As it turned out, this proved to be an exercise in caution, as both students tested negative for the virus.
The advocates at S.A.F.E. Schools are taking care not to criticize school leaders who are on the front lines. “If we want to go back to school, we have to make it as safe as possible,” Griffin said. “We don’t believe that any school district, or any superintendent is going to do anything that is not going to be safe, but we want parents to feel safe, and we want all educators to feel safe too.”