When the coronavirus began infiltrating two Jamaica Plain schools, word about who was infected or potentially exposed often came from parents in text messages and phone calls rather than through contact tracing by the Boston school system.
The schools’ principals, nurses, and staffers also alerted families, focusing their efforts first on classrooms where cases were emerging, although they were restricted under federal privacy laws about what they could share.
The lack of robust contact tracing, many parents say, shows how the Boston Public Schools were unprepared to handle a sizable outbreak of COVID-19, 20 months into the pandemic.
When the school year began in September amid the surging Delta variant, Boston Public Schools had only seven people in the Health Services Department assigned to do contact tracing among more than 10,000 employees and 51,000, mostly unvaccinated, students. The school department recently tapped a private contractor, which is still getting its footing, while the number of COVID-19 cases in the district is climbing.
The breakdown in contact tracing — along with problems in the state’s COVID-19 testing programs for schools — prompted Superintendent Brenda Cassellius on Tuesday to shut the Curley K-8 School until Nov. 22, saying, “We have not been able to contain it.”
Over the course of one week, the number of COVID-19 cases at the 900-student school had ballooned from seven to about four dozen, across multiple classrooms and grade levels. The outbreak came on the heels of another one a mile away at the much smaller Manning Elementary School, where 18 cases have emerged since late October. Some parents are wondering if the two events are connected, given that families from the schools intermingle.
Meanwhile, the school department has been responding to a third significant outbreak of two dozen cases at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury. Overall, the Boston school system has tallied 547 COVID-19 cases this fall, with 146 cases just in this past week, according to data released Friday.
Sarah Pagonis’s three children who attend the Manning got the virus after the first case emerged at the school in late October. About a half dozen students in her 9-year-old son’s class contracted COVID-19, but she said she never heard from the district’s contact tracers.
“The mother of one student contacted us and texted everyone,” Pagonis said, noting that her own children have recovered. “These kids are sitting all day together, but he wasn’t considered a close contact.”
“It seemed like [BPS] didn’t know what they were doing,” she added.
Closing an entire school due to a COVID-19 outbreak is an unusual move in this school year. State officials believe only one other public school has closed this fall, Holyoke Community Charter School. That school had two dozen cases, including a 13-year-old eighth-grader who died from complications from the virus.
The closures go against state rules that currently forbid moving entire schools to remote learning when COVID cases arise. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has been adamant that schools need to stay open during the pandemic to optimize learning and the social-emotional wellbeing of students.
It’s a position shared by US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who told “Face the Nation” this week that “there should be no need for remote or hybrid learning” amid current advances in vaccinations and treatment for COVID-19 and added schools should instead focus on “controlling community spread.”
To keep schools open amid outbreaks, Massachusetts officials encourage districts to ramp up testing and quarantine specific classrooms or grade levels — moving only those students to remote learning.
Boston school leaders have not used the quarantine option so far this school year, despite requests by parents at the Manning. It’s not clear why the school system has not taken the step, but in the case of the Curley, Cassellius said the virus had spread too extensively.
As Mark Horan, a Curley parent, put it: “They sort of declared the whole school a close contact and we now all need to keep our kids at home.”
The dramatic move is not sitting well with Riley. On Friday, the commissioner sent Cassellius a blistering letter criticizing her for not doing enough to contain the outbreak and for not sufficiently consulting his office before closing.
“We are left to wonder if the whole school closure at the Curley could have been avoided if progressive interventions ... were implemented last week, such as quarantining individual classrooms or grade levels,” Riley wrote.
To pressure Cassellius to bring students back by Wednesday, Nov. 17, Riley will allow the Curley to count only four days of remote learning toward the legally required 180 days of schooling. If the Curley closure extends beyond that, students will need to make up the days.
Some parents blasted Riley’s response.
“Why does he think the teachers are only able to deliver good teaching [remotely] for four days and not seven days? I’m struggling to understand the rationale,” said Maia BrodyField, whose son is a Curley fourth-grader. She also questioned how an education official could override the advice of the Boston Public Health Commission, which recommended the closure.
Cassellius has acknowledged the district’s contact tracing efforts were insufficient, saying on Tuesday, “BPS has worked to quadruple contact tracing capacity within our schools ... so that we can handle any time that we see an uptick like the one that we see at the Curley.”
She also criticized the state for not providing enough testing capacity for the “test and stay” program used by the Curley and other schools, which enables students and staff who’ve been in close contact with an infected individual to continue attending school with a negative rapid test result. The program, a Boston school official later explained, seems to be working well at small schools, but not at larger ones like the Curley, which was administering 500 tests a day.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education defended its handling of testing, noting its private contractor, CIC Healthcare, had six workers at the Curley on Monday and sent five more on Tuesday at the district’s request, calling the staffing sufficient.
Boston, like other districts statewide, also has encountered problems with the state’s weekly pool testing program, which started late and still is experiencing last-minute cancellations.
Consequently, many parents and teachers feel the state shares blame for the COVID-19 outbreaks. In addition to testing problems, they criticize state education department rules for contact tracing, which exempt testing and quarantine protocols for someone who is exposed to a COVID-19 positive person in a classroom if both are masked and at least 3 feet apart.
But another significant question lingers among many Boston families about the outbreaks: To what extent did the virus spread among children at school or in their neighborhoods? In Jamaica Plain, with its high vaccination rate, families had begun returning to a somewhat normal life this fall, taking part in the Jamaica Pond Lantern Festival and trick-or-treating.
“It’s just scary in this situation,” said Keeana Saxon, tri-chair of the Curley School Parent Council. “We don’t know exactly where and how the virus is being transmitted. It might be in the classroom but some students know each other outside the classroom. ... Now we are at this point where reality has set in that COVID is still a problem.”