As coronavirus cases climb, at least 63 students and 34 staff members who have been inside public school buildings in Massachusetts have tested positive for COVID-19, state education officials said Friday.
The data is the first statewide look at the virus’s prevalence in public schools. A weekly summary on positive cases reported at schools will be published each Thursday.
Cases in school districts so far have been isolated and have not led to clusters, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said in an interview Friday. Most districts that have reported cases have seen only one or two, although some have seen more. Among the highest numbers: Four students in Plymouth and four staff members in Worcester have tested positive.
If a cluster does occur inside a school, the state plans to deploy a rapid-testing mobile unit to help test students and staff and determine a course of action. Those mobile units have not been deployed so far, Riley said.
“That’s not to say it won’t happen, right?” Riley said, referring to clusters of coronavirus cases being found in schools. “I mean, the reason why we put this in place is because it could happen during the year, and we want to be ready.”
Friday’s figures include any cases reported to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education between Sept. 24 and 30. State education officials are not tracking when the cases occur, only when local school officials report them to the state.
The state is only tracking cases involving students and staff members who have been inside school buildings, unless the staff member was not inside a school building for seven days before the case was reported. Coronavirus cases among those who are learning or teaching remotely — including out-of-school gatherings that have infected students or teachers — are not included in the data.
The state tally is based entirely on cases reported by school districts; there may be additional cases that have not been reported to the state.
Many school districts in Massachusetts began the academic year — either remotely or in a hybrid model — on Sept. 16.
The figures were released amid concerns that Massachusetts could be heading toward a second wave of the coronavirus as hospitalizations rise statewide and 29 communities halt their reopening plans. On Friday, Massachusetts public health officials reported 753 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily increase since May 30.
For now, transmission rates remain low enough that most students can return to the classroom, at least part time, Riley said. But state officials this summer planned for a potential rise in cases by asking each school district to create three learning models — full-time in-person, full-time remote, and a hybrid approach — in case the virus transmission rates forced them to adjust, he added.
“We’re always going to be monitoring the trajectory of the virus and the data, and while we’re still low now, even with a recent uptick, we’ll be monitoring the data throughout the year to see where we are and what next steps [are],” Riley said.
But “erratic openings and closings” of school buildings based on changing coronavirus data can be “destabilizing for children,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said in a statement.
“It is both troubling and frustrating to see that nearly 100 students and school staff members participating in hybrid and in-person models of learning across the state have tested positive for COVID-19 in a single week of reporting," she wrote. “The Massachusetts Teachers Association has been warning about a rise in cases as a result of Governor Charlie Baker’s and state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s reckless drive to push people back into school buildings too soon. With this new data, we worry that these concerns are being realized.”
Over the past few months, Baker and Riley have pushed school districts to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms, particularly in areas where coronavirus rates have been low.
They’ve asked districts to use the state’s color-coded coronavirus risk map, which puts communities in one of four risk categories based on its average daily infection rate per 100,000 residents. Only communities in the state’s red zone, the highest-risk designation, for three consecutive weeks should move to a remote-only learning model, Baker and Riley have said.
On Friday, Riley reiterated that guideline, saying the weekly summary on coronavirus cases should not be used to decide whether to close or reopen schools.
“I don’t think this data is used for decision-making purposes,” he said. “This is really used for just transparency purposes, so families know where cases are occurring.”
In September, Riley wrote to officials in 16 school districts that were starting the academic year remotely, despite low coronavirus transmission rates in their communities. He asked them to submit more comprehensive reopening plans with a timeline for bringing students back, and said he may audit districts depending on their responses.
The state is still reviewing those plans, Riley said Friday.
“We think that we’ve been able to strengthen remote learning so that it’s better than it was last spring, but we don’t think that anything can replace in-person instruction,” Riley said. “And with our transmission rates being low, we strongly recommended the districts try to get their kids in, to the greatest extent possible. Will there be a second spike in the winter or later? We don’t know. And we’re going to monitor that.”