Public Health releases back-to-school framework amid decline in local cases

Second-graders raise their hands to answer a question about synonyms in Carol Keating's classroom at St. Brigid's Catholic School in Xenia on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.
Second-graders raise their hands to answer a question about synonyms in Carol Keating's classroom at St. Brigid's Catholic School in Xenia on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

Montgomery County has consistently been at the “red” COVID alert level; most schools are planning in-person return

Public Health Dayton & Montgomery County suggested a framework Monday for schools to use as they navigate a return to (or continuation of) in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The framework, in partnership with the Montgomery County Educational Service Center, supports in-person classes and extracurricular activities if the county has a sustained period at the yellow or orange level of Ohio’s Public Health Advisory System, or if there is a sustained decline in the total number of COVID-19 cases.

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Montgomery County has been at the more serious red level for nine of the system’s 10 weeks, including the current week. But Public Health said Monday there has been a decline in the number of cases here in the past month.

They said the average daily count of new cases in Montgomery County peaked at 122 per day in late August, and “preliminary data indicate a downward trend” since Aug. 28, with the most recent average sitting at 35 per day.

“At this point, the cases are such that we’re comfortable with (the framework) we just sent out,” said Public Health spokesman Dan Suffoletto. “But that could change at any time and people need to maintain their precautions.”

Public Health’s framework is not a mandate, as local schools have already been making varied individual decisions, in consultation with the health department.

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Seven of Montgomery County’s 16 public school districts have had some level of in-person school since late August or early September. Of the other nine, Huber Heights has already started its staggered return to in-person school.

Six districts — Centerville, Dayton, Northmont, Northridge, Trotwood and West Carrollton — have announced they’ll return to in-person classes soon. Kettering officials said they will announce a plan by Oct. 20, and Jefferson Twp. is staying online through the first semester. Most local private schools have been in-person since August or early September.

“The ability for students to safely return to in-person learning is dependent upon the level of community spread of COVID-19,” said Montgomery County Health Commissioner Jeff Cooper. “The guidance that we have jointly developed allows us to have pre-identified measurable levels that we can use for our decision making.”

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Public Health said Monday there have been 72 student or staff COVID-19 cases reported by Montgomery County K-12 schools pursuant to the Sept. 3 ODH reporting order. That’s 58 more than were reported last Thursday in ODH’s weekly dashboard for Montgomery County through Sept. 27.

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Suffoletto said some of the 72 locally reported cases are students or staff who are working fully remotely and therefore aren’t required to included in the state’s dashboard.

He said a data lag may be to blame in some other cases. Last week’s dashboard, through Sept. 27, listed 14 Montgomery County school cases, although several of them appeared to have occurred earlier. One was at a school that notified families of the case Sept. 12.

Mad River schools, which have had a hybrid in-person/remote system this fall, had two student COVID cases reported in late September.

"Our hybrid learning model has allowed us to effectively social distance at six feet or greater in each of our classrooms and common areas, which dramatically minimizes the opportunity of COVID spread within our buildings' said Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen.

Public Health officials said as students return in greater numbers, “there will inevitably be more cases of COVID-19 in the schools.” Students who test positive will be asked to isolate at home and close contacts will be required to quarantine for 14 days.

“The safety of the learning environment is dependent of the actions of the students, faculty and staff,” Public Health said.

Suffoletto cautioned people to watch longer trends in COVID case data rather than single-day spikes or dips. But with some of the county’s largest school districts (Dayton, Centerville, Huber Heights, Northmont) preparing for in-person return, just after the statewide number of cases and positivity rate rose a bit last week, he said it’s not time for people to let their guard down.

“Any time a large group of people gets together, there’s a chance of an increase of spread of COVID,” he said. “Yeah, we’re always concerned cases are going to go up. Everything we’re doing is trying to make that not happen.”

Public Health called on schools to follow seven specific strategies for a safer return to school:

** Consistent and correct use of masks as outlined in the Aug. 13 Ohio Department of Health order

** Compliance with six-foot social distancing requirements

** Having smaller groups than a traditional size classroom to the extent possible

** Following hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette

** Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces

** Collaborating with Public Health on case identification, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine

** Complying with rules for sports participants in the Sept. 25 ODH order.

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