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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Educators less worried this year about the uptick of COVID-19 cases in schools

First grade student Ashley Emmanuel worked at the Parlin School in Everett.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

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COVID-19 cases among students and staff members have more than quadrupled since Halloween, following the same pattern seen last year, but educators now appear to have a better handle on the situation, keeping more kids in classrooms learning.

“People aren’t shocked that the numbers are going up,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “But they have better tools to deal with it and to adapt to the change.”

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It’s not clear yet whether the newly detected Omicron variant will warrant stricter mitigation or surveillance measures in schools. “Clearly this variant is something that we will need to watch carefully, but it is too early for us to change our behaviors,” said Elissa Perkins, associate professor of emergency medicine and infectious disease expert at Boston University School of Medicine, who also is a volunteer adviser to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

So far this fall, high staff vaccination rates and a state testing program have allowed schools to quickly determine whether asymptomatic students have caught the virus after exposure to a COVID-19 positive teacher or classmate. Nearly every school around the state is participating in the program, allowing for more students with negative test results to remain at school.

The week of Dec. 2, the state logged 8,513 cases among students. That’s nearly seven times higher than the 1,230 cases documented during the first week of school. Likewise, staff cases have risen sevenfold to 1,396 since Sept. 16.

Clusters have emerged in Andover, Mattapoisett, and Southborough, and Boston shut down an entire K-8 school in Jamaica Plain after a 46-person outbreak, prompting the teachers union and parents to call for an independent investigation. As schools paused for Thanksgiving, Boston reported another 25 cases from pool testing at the Sarah Greenwood K-8 School in Dorchester. (District officials are working to verify how many cases are confirmed.)

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Yet, medical experts say, there’s no evidence that schools have become a big source of community spread or that Omicron has shown up there.

“It’s not surprising that the numbers are going up. It’s the holiday season. People are going more indoors,” said Perkins.

Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said schools aren’t a big source of spread in most communities right now. ”In most schools we are only seeing isolated cases that are being revealed through testing,” he said.

With a better understanding of the ebb and flow of the virus and more tools available for controlling contagion, school leaders said they have been feeling more optimistic.

“I’m less concerned than I was at this time last year,” said Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar, who said most of his staff is vaccinated. However, the discovery of Omicron has dampened his optimism. “The timing of this is bad,” he said pointing to the “inevitable” rise in cases after Thanksgiving and through the holidays.

For now, experts and school leaders say there’s no evidence for drastically changing how they protect their students and staff. (Although some school districts that were experimenting with unmasking might pause before discarding face coverings completely.)

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In addition to the availability of vaccinations, including the more recent approval to immunize younger children, schools have been able to use a state testing program called “Test and Stay” to respond to positive cases at school. Rather than sending all contacts home to quarantine as they did last year, districts like Billerica that have signed up can quickly test students and teachers.

In Andover, for example, school leaders responded to an outbreak of 31 students and one staff member at an elementary school starting Nov. 1. Contract tracers aren’t certain of the source but believe transmission may have occurred at three different community events, according to district spokeswoman Nicole Kieser.

The elementary school did not close any classrooms. Instead, the school used the state testing program to rapidly decide there were no additional positive cases among classmates, helping a “large number of students to continue with in-person classes,” wrote Kieser.

Statewide, the program has helped “save” 135,438 in-person school days, according to state data.

“It’s been a tremendous help,” said New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson, who had to close two classrooms this fall after students tested positive. “Nothing is perfect, but this is working for us.”

Anderson wasn’t sure what percentage of students have agreed to be tested, but said many families opt in “when they’re faced with the possibility of their child having to stay home.”

In Lowell Public Schools, only about a quarter of students are signed up for test and stay, according to Jason McCrevan, principal of the Washington Elementary School and the interim safety coordinator for the district. “We’re hopeful more will sign up,” he said.

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Bromage, the UMass Dartmouth associate professor, worries too few campuses are using surveillance testing, which regularly tests students and staff who’ve signed up regardless of any known exposures in attempt to catch cases before they spread. “By not participating in the surveillance program they are running blind,” said Bromage.

Only 63 percent of schools are signed up for proactive surveillance testing and some of the largest districts aren’t using it, according to state data. (The state doesn’t recommend it for students and staff who are vaccinated.) Without regular surveillance testing, schools “will not know if there is in-school transmission until after multiple cases are seen from out-of-school testing,” he said. “At that stage, they are then trying to chase infections, rather than being out in front.”

But it’s not a good use of schools’ limited staff, according to some superintendents and Perkins, the Boston University emergency medicine professor. She advocated last year for surveillance testing in schools but says scientists have more information now. “My stance has changed since we have data from last year and there was very little in-school transmission,” she said.

And since vaccinations became available in November for children 5 to 11 years old, she feels even more convinced that schools should spend their time and energy rapid testing students who show symptoms of the virus or have been exposed to a classmate who tests positive.

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But in districts where vaccination rates are low, there’s still trepidation to pull back on surveillance testing given the increase in cases. “We are a little concerned,” said Azell Cavaan, spokeswoman for the Springfield Public Schools, a city where 43 percent of 12-to-15 year-olds are fully inoculated. The district is using both regular surveillance testing and test and stay when there’s a positive case. “We haven’t had any clusters. But vaccinations are not what we want them to be.”

Piwowar in Billerica, where less than half of 12-to-15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, worries about the children in his district who’ve yet to take the shot. “There’s the health impact . . . and then there’s the fact that kids who test positive have to be out of school for a significant amount of time and the impact on their education is huge.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.