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School cases spike: Mass. reports 8,513 new coronavirus cases among public school students and 1,396 among staff in past two weeks

A board displays first grade artwork and hand-written notes by students in Ms. Allison Piatelli's class at the Parlin School in Everett.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

State education leaders on Thursday reported 8,513 new cases among public school students and 1,396 among staff members for the two-week period that ended Wednesday — a dramatic but expected spike as numbers have risen sharply across the state.

Wednesday’s report of 9,909 total cases was inevitably much higher than the state’s last report of 3,815 total cases, which only included a single week of data from Nov. 11 to 17. But the number of cases has also risen particularly fast in recent weeks as case numbers statewide have seen similar increases.

“As community case load increases, the chance someone is coming into the school positive increases,” said Daniele Lantagne, a Tufts University professor who helped craft the child mask-wearing guidance for the World Health Organization.

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Cases reported among public school students and staff members always are expected to rise along with cases in the general population, and the increase in school cases does not necessarily correlate to coronavirus spread happening in school buildings, Lantagne said.

About 920,000 students across the state are attending school in person, and about 140,000 staff members are inside school buildings. From Nov. 18 to Dec. 1, about 0.93 percent of students and 1 percent of staff members reported positive cases of the coronavirus to their school leaders.

That’s up from 0.35 percent of students and 0.4 percent of staff members who tested positive Nov. 11 to 17. Thursday’s report consolidated two weeks of data — about seven to eight days for most schools, depending on the district, because of Thanksgiving break.

Weekly reports of coronavirus cases from schools have been higher this school year than at any time last academic year. Significantly more students are attending school in person this year than last year, and more than double the number of schools have signed up to participate in COVID-19 testing services provided by the state.

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Just about 1,000 schools participated last school year, compared to more than 2,200 that have signed up to participate this year. It’s not clear how many schools are actively participating in testing programs, but 1,947 reported testing data for the two-week period that ended Sunday.

For the two weeks that ended Sunday, 35,357 pooled tests were processed, with a pool positivity rate of 1.99 percent. In the test-and-stay program, which tests students and staff who were close contacts of people who tested positive for the virus, 67,154 tests were conducted, and 66,465 tests came back negative.

Massachusetts school districts are required to report positive cases among students and employees to the state, though the reports do not indicate how many of the people had been inside school buildings. Local school leaders are asked to report any cases among enrolled students or employed staff members, regardless of whether they had been at school since their positive test.

Reported cases among students and staff also are not an indication that in-school transmission has occurred, or that there was a cluster of cases, which is defined by the state Department of Public Health as two or more confirmed Massachusetts cases with a common exposure. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 27, there were 104 clusters in Massachusetts public, private, special education, and boarding schools.

The cases reported from school leaders are among those reported by the state public health agency every day. During the two-week period from Nov. 14 to 27, the state reported 2,013 cases among children from birth to age 4, 3,710 cases among kids ages 5 to 9, 3,508 cases among kids ages 10 to 14, and 2,258 cases among teenagers ages 15 to 19.

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Among people under age 20, kids ages 5 to 9 had the highest rate of COVID-19 infection for the two-week period: 1,004.2 people per 100,000.

Experts also have repeatedly emphasized that while many children remain unvaccinated, COVID-19 does not cause severe illness for most children that contract it. From Nov. 14 to 27, 35 people under age 20 in Massachusetts were hospitalized, and no one in that age group died.

Safdar Medina, the pediatric director at Tri-River Family Health Center in Uxbridge and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, said the best thing families can do to continue preventing in-school transmission is to wear a mask, get vaccinated, and stay home when you’re feeling sick.

“We just have to cautiously watch,” he said. “Be cautious, keep our guard up.”

Despite the new Omicron variant dominating headlines, Lantagne said the “vast likelihood” is that the cases reported in schools are all still due to the Delta variant, the dominant strain in Massachusetts. Even if cases continue to rise next week, she said, it’s important that education leaders wait to know more about the Omicron variant before making drastic changes to schools.

“It is incredibly difficult, but we know very little about transmissibility, virulence, or vaccine escape [with Omicron], and we won’t know for two weeks,” she said. “We need to be patient until that data comes before we make decisions about moving forward.”

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