State education leaders reported 1,230 coronavirus cases among 920,000 students Thursday evening in their first school tally since June, a grim reminder of the uncertainty hanging over another new school year.
There were 190 reported cases among 140,000 school staff statewide, or 0.14 percent, a notable increase from the five staff cases reported in June among the same number of in-person educators. The new case rate for students is 0.13 percent, up from 0.01 percent reported among 735,000 students in June.
Student coronavirus cases had been steadily declining in the spring, but the numbers released Thursday show an increase from those previous weekly reports. The latest count only includes cases reported from Monday through Wednesday. Future reports, to be published weekly, will include a full week of reporting.
State leaders said an uptick in cases was expected, given the larger number of students attending schools in person this fall and the increased number of schools conducting school-based testing. Last spring, 1,000 public and private schools participated in school-based testing; participation more than doubled this fall to 2,200 schools, a spokeswoman said.
Statewide COVID-19 data released separately Thursday shows 1,171 cases among children from birth to age 4 in the past two weeks, 1,645 cases among kids age 5 to 9, 1,525 cases among youngsters age 10 to 14, and 1,847 cases in adolescents age 15 to 19.
Children in all age groups had higher rates of infection than adults in their 50s, 60s, or above. Among children, 5-to-9-year-olds had the greatest infection rate at 445.2 cases per 100,000 people. The highest rate of any group — 523.7 cases per 100,000 — was found in people in their 20s.
One child was reported to have died of the virus in the last two weeks.
Case counts will be closely watched this fall, at the start of a school year when the state is not permitting school districts to offer standard remote learning options to all students, as most districts did last year. Some families are protesting the shift in policy, especially for elementary school students, who still do not have access to vaccines.
Medical specialists said it is difficult to interpret the new data because students have so recently returned to classrooms, and the virus continues to mutate into new variants that can be more easily transmitted.
“Nobody is pleased to see that there’s an increase in the number of cases in schools,” said Dr. Richard Malley, a senior physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital. “That’s certainly not what we want to see, but it’s probably not unexpected.”
Malley said schools should require masks and social distancing, keep buildings well ventilated, and encourage vaccinations. People should also be tested for the virus regularly, he said.
The state has mandated masks in schools for teachers, staff, and students, regardless of vaccination status, through at least Oct. 1. After that date, schools that have 80 percent or more of their students and staff fully vaccinated will be allowed to drop the mandate for vaccinated people only.
Massachusetts has not mandated COVID vaccines or weekly testing for teachers, though Boston is requiring its school staffers to be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID testing. The state also has eased social distancing requirements in schools.
Megan Castro, whose three children are all too young to be vaccinated, said their Boston school is doing the right things.
“I feel comfortable with the precautions being taken,” she said. “They are masking when indoors and doing weekly testing.”
Massachusetts is one of a few states to offer a “test and stay” program in schools, allowing close contacts of infected staff and students to come to school and be rapid-tested daily instead of quarantining at home if they show no symptoms. The option cuts down the number of school days missed by students, a state spokeswoman said.
The state also is recommending that districts participate in its free, pooled testing program, a more routine type of testing designed to help identify more positive cases.
Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an associate hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center, said the increase in school-based testing is a helpful development that can slow the virus’s spread and reveal infections that might have gone unreported.
“The hope is that knowing who’s positive, and isolating them, and preventing exposure in the classroom will … continue to keep COVID numbers low in the classroom,” said Pierre.
The mother of twin 3-year-old boys who have just entered preschool, Pierre said she has been reassured by the thoughtful precautions and regular communication from the school, where all the staff are vaccinated. She said she is “cautiously optimistic” that by following proper procedures, schools will be able to remain open through the academic year.
“We know that numbers are going to go up, but [as] we’ve seen in other places … that continued with in-person schooling, we had a package of interventions that worked,” she said. “And despite the presence of a highly transmissible virus, those interventions should continue to work.”