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A few caveats to consider as we look at alarming coronavirus data from schools this year

Sixth grader Aanari Herring, 12, center, got a hug from classmate Quinn McMahon-Ruda, left, 11, after arriving at the George H. Conley Elementary School on Sept. 9.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

State education leaders on Thursday released the first weekly coronavirus case report of the year from schools — 1,230 cases among students and 190 among staff for Monday through Wednesday. For many, the numbers feel significantly higher than last year’s reports, during which the highest-ever student case count was 1,095 the week of April 8 to 14.

While alarming for some, experts say the increase in the school population, rise in pooled testing, and spread of the Delta variant made the high case count relatively expected.

Here are the caveats to consider, experts say:

The in-person student population has grown

At the end of the 2020-21 academic year, when nearly all schools had been required to return to full-time, in-person learning, the state still had only an estimated 735,000 students attending school. Families had the option last year to keep students in remote-only learning models, and thousands chose that approach.


Cases among remote-learning students and remote-working staff members were not tracked by the state.

This year, the state has taken away the option for schools to offer remote learning to families, apart from narrow exceptions that existed prior to the pandemic. As a result, the state’s in-person student body has grown to about 920,000 students.

The way data is being collected has changed

Last year, cases only were reported for students and staff members who had been in a district building within seven days prior to testing positive. This year, cases are being reported for any student enrolled and staff member employed by the school district, regardless of whether they’ve been inside the building.

Local school districts will be required to report positive cases among students and staff members to this state this year. That requirement began for the 2020-21 school year in mid-October 2020.

More schools are participating in COVID-19 testing

More than double the number of public and private schools in Massachusetts are participating in some form of COVID-19 testing this year, compared to last year, according to the state. All testing is provided to schools at no cost to the district.


This academic year, more than 2,200 public and private schools are using rapid testing, pooled testing, a “test and stay” program for testing close contacts, or a combination of all three. Among public schools, 993 are signed up for all three modes, as of this week.

“Just as we are wearing masks, just as we are encouraging vaccinations, this is a mitigation strategy,” said Dr. Safdar Medina, the pediatric director at Tri-River Family Health Center in Uxbridge and a professor at the University of Massachusetts. “Identifying a case is really the key to prevent that case from spreading.”

Medina encouraged every family to opt in to pooled testing, noting that it’s a way to promptly identify and isolate people who test positive and to prevent in-school transmission. In some communities, getting families to participate in the program has been one of the largest obstacles.

In Boston, for instance, where about 50,000 students are enrolled, less than one-third, or 16,512, have opted in through the district’s digital portal. Some have filled out paper consent forms that have not yet been uploaded, according to the district. Pooled testing is available at all 123 Boston Public Schools; it began at some schools on Thursday and will start at others next week.

Delta is more transmissible

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is more transmissible than earlier variants, so as Delta causes a rise in cases community wide, cases will inevitably increase among the school population, too.


“We’ve always seen that what you see in the school is going to be a reflection of what you see in the community,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. “It is a reflection of the fact that we’re in a Delta era, not a reflection of something that’s really dangerous about schools themselves.”

High numbers aren’t necessarily a cause for alarm

“We don’t need the numbers to be as low in September as they were in May to prevent morbidity and mortality, which is ultimately what we want to prevent,” Doron said.

Because older students and all staff members have had the opportunity to get vaccinated, schools can tolerate a larger amount of risk without putting children in harm’s way, Doron said.

“Is the goal to prevent all person-to-person transmission in school? I don’t think it’s possible this year, and I don’t think it needs to be,” Doron said, but added it’s important for governmental bodies to define what the goal should be.

“What number do we want to see?”