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Back after winter break: School districts brace for high COVID case counts

Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 6:39 PM EST
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - It was back to school for most Vermont students on Monday. State health officials were hoping to stop that from becoming a super-spreader event by pre-testing kids at home.

The state handed out about 45,000 antigen testing kits at the end of last week. But the Vermont Department of Health says the tests are not specifically coded, so they can’t distinguish those results from other antigen test results. So we don’t know how many students tested positive.

But some schools are reporting a high number of people out sick Monday.

“Getting the messaging out has been challenging,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the superintendent of the Slate Valley Unified Union School District.

The state distributed antigen tests as a way to encourage testing students in grades K-12 before they return to school. But it was a last-minute effort during a holiday week and the state only distributed a little more than half of the tests they had hoped.

“Many of our families and staff who have kids in the school were not necessarily checking their email or answering the phones because they were on vacation. So, I think as a result many families missed that opportunity,” Olsen-Farrell said.

Olsen-Farrell says about 15% of their student body was absent for the first day back.

Eleven students at Fair Haven High School reported testing positive from an at-home antigen test and most have symptoms.

“I also had a number of families that have just decided to keep their children home this week to kind of see what the case counts and numbers look like in school this week,” Olsen-Farrell said.

Thirty staff members are also out. A majority either have COVID or are a close contact.

Beth Cobb, the superintendent of the Essex Westford School District, encouraged families to pick up the state’s test kits, but also hosted their own antigen testing Monday morning for about 75 students.

“We had a few positives show up, but very few. So really really glad that we did that and we offered that,” Cobb said.

Ninety-six out of 1,100 staffers in the district called out sick. Cobb says the majority are from family illnesses or COVID-related, not necessarily a positive test result.

“We thought it would look a lot worse today. It seems about average for COVID, but we will see how that goes,” Cobb said.

In the Rutland City public schools, COVID Coordinator Justine Franko says at the high school, at least 30 students did not go to school because they tested positive. But a lot of symptomatic kids did show up.

“We sent home probably a record number of students today,” Franko said.

Franko says 25 students were dismissed, which is on par with December’s numbers. But this time all students sent home have COVID symptoms.

“We are looking at a lot of cases and being very overwhelmed and we are also losing staff, we are humans too. We are also parents, so we have kids who quarantine,” Franko said.

On New Year’s Eve, Vermont’s Agency of Education alerted the head of schools, saying it is adopting the new CDC guidance, changing quarantine and vaccination rules. This has caused the schools some confusion and they’re all asking the state for clarification.

We will continue to follow COVID cases and the new guidance in schools.

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