Students returning to classrooms as COVID-19 cases spike

Stebbins High School Principal Tina Simpson, walks through the lunchroom with individual tables that were set up for social distancing. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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Stebbins High School Principal Tina Simpson, walks through the lunchroom with individual tables that were set up for social distancing. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

Several of the area’s largest school districts are bringing kids back into classrooms as COVID-19 cases climb locally and statewide, prompting concerns from some parents that re-opening plans are premature.

School districts that have taught in-person since the beginning of the school year say that their experience shows students can attend school safely if proper procedures are followed.

But, all agree, quarantine rules are a hassle and makes this year’s education experience very different.

The Dayton Daily News analyzed health department data and surveyed dozens of school officials and hundreds of parents about reopening plans. Here’s what we found:

  • In late September Public Health Dayton-Montgomery County changed its guidance for schools and encouraged more in-school instruction in-part because of a decline in cases up to that point. Case numbers in the county have risen steadily in the three weeks since.
  • The majority of respondents to an online Dayton Daily News survey support some form of in-person learning, though roughly 45 percent of 395 respondents say schools should stay online exclusively.
  • School districts that have been holding in-person classes since the beginning of the school year say a bigger problem than COVID-19 spread at school is the resources tied up in contact tracing. Hundreds of area students are at home quarantined for weeks at a time though few of those students end up testing positive.
  • Health experts say children and teens appear more resistant to the symptoms of COVID-19, but they can still get it and spread it and are inherently at more risk of getting it if they are in school. Weighing those risks against what children lose by not going to school is a decision each household is making for itself.

COVID numbers rising

Dayton Public Schools and Kettering City Schools are both scheduled to welcome back in-person students on Nov. 9. Both districts started the year online-only. In July Public Health Dayton-Montgomery County recommended schools start virtually because of COVID-19 spread.

Current reopening plans followed health department guidance this month that “supports in-person learning and extracurricular activities for a sustained designation of Risk Level 1 (Yellow) and 2 (Orange) and/or a continued decline in the total number of cases, dependent on schools implementing ... mitigation strategies.”

Montgomery County remains in a level 3 “red” designation, according to the state’s county designation system. Case numbers locally have climbed each of the past three weeks and COVID-related hospitalizations have risen significantly statewide, as has the test positivity rate.

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Health department spokesman Dan Suffoletto said last week that current Montgomery County case levels are still below the peak average of 122 per day in late August.

“We do not know if the cases will continue to rise or go lower,” he said. “We, like all other local public health departments around the state, are concerned about the upward trend of cases. We will continue to monitor trends and work with our local schools.”

DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli told parents in a virtual town hall last week that she and other school superintendents meet weekly with the county health commissioner.

“The health commissioner noted that there are several schools that are starting to return and he was very comfortable even though the numbers were rising - mostly on the college campus close to us - he was comfortable with the fact that students were able to come back to the schools in the schools that started this week,” she said.

She said they are monitoring the numbers closely.

One district that returned to face-to-face learning last week was Centerville City Schools. The week before, when it first allowed students on campus for two transition days, it reported 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 49 student quarantines. Those cases would have come from community spread, however, not the schools.

Tips from an in-person district

Miamisburg City Schools is one of a handful of districts in Montgomery County that offered families in-person learning five days a week all school year.

Miamisburg Superintendent Laura Blessing said while the curriculum is the same online or in-person, families there made it clear they wanted an option where students can have social contacts with their peers and teachers, support services, counseling, physical and speech therapy.

“Those are all opportunities that are very hard to mimic online,” she said.

The district has reported 12 students testing positive with COVID-19 since the beginning of the year. All of them were traced back to the students' families or community groups, Blessing said. But hundreds of students have had to temporarily stay home because of rules requiring a 14-day quarantine for any student who spent 15 minutes within six feet of someone who tested positive.

Area districts with most COVID-19 cases     
Here are the 10 Miami Valley school districts with the most COVID-19 cases reported in the state's Oct. 22 dashboard release. Case numbers may not match the data on some schools' own web sites, due to differences in the reporting timeframe, or due to some schools' decision to include cases involving fully remote students. Districts say the majority of reported cases came from community spread, not in-school spread.     
CountySchool districtReported student casesReported staff casesTotalEnrollment
WarrenMason City42125410,449
GreeneFairborn City 2019394,177
WarrenSpringboro City226286,199
MiamiTroy City177244,158
MontgomeryMiamisburg City128205,245
MiamiPiqua City134173,221
GreeneBeavercreek City113148,008
MiamiTipp City 102122,530
WarrenFranklin City84122,763
MontgomeryMiami Valley Career Tech57121,850
Source: Ohio COVID-19 dashboard updated Oct. 22, Ohio Department of Education, Miami Valley CTC.    

The week of Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, for example, Miamisburg had one positive student case, but 105 students quarantined, many because of coming in contact with a case outside of school.

Blessing said one recommendation for other districts is to keep students cloistered in pods as much as possible to simplify the contact tracing. And she said they take precautions seriously, requiring all students preschool and older to wear masks, to socially distance, and to do hand sanitizing.

“Our students have done an amazing job,” she said.

Hundreds quarantined

The Dayton Daily News surveyed school districts across the Miami Valley and found several districts dealing with the revolving door of students going on and off quarantine. Mason City Schools the week of Sept. 28 had four positive cases and 113 students on quarantine. Beavercreek had five positive cases and 115 students quarantined.

There have been 71 student COVID-19 cases and 67 staff cases reported to the state in Montgomery County this year, and 40 student cases and 34 staff cases in Greene County. The state data may differ from local schools' own dashboards because of different reporting windows or because some local schools include fully remote students.

ExploreMany online students heading back to school, but models differ

Mason City Schools spokeswoman Tracey Carson said they believe the quarantine rules should be relaxed from six feet to three. She noted that Mason is one of the state’s larger school districts with more than 10,000 students — about 70 percent of whom are attending class in-person — and none of the 42 student cases reported to the state were traced back to in-school spread.

But the district has had to quarantine nearly 1,000 students in the 10 weeks they’ve been in school, she said.

“We believe that policy-makers should consider the evidence gleaned from schools who have been in-person for more than two months,” she said. “Schools are not super-spreaders. The fears from the summer have not borne out. Mason City Schools' safety protocols where students and staff wear face masks and maintain at least three-foot distance is working.”

Some school districts have decided to scale back in-person learning. Beavercreek City Schools transitioned from students attending five days a week to two days a week when Greene County was downgraded to the “red” level in the state’s COVID-19 alert system. About a quarter of the district’s students are fully online.

Fairborn moved several schools fully online for two weeks when they had multiple COVID cases. In one case it was because so many teachers were required to quarantine due to possible exposure that the school could not staff all of its classrooms in-person.

ExploreCOVID cases tied to schools rise, following state pattern

Greeneview Local Schools Superintendent Isaac Seevers said his district has dealt with two concerns. The rist is that positive cases at students' homes are not always being reported to schools. But they might have to switch to virtual learning because of a lack of substitute teachers, not sick students.

"That is the reality of our situation since many of our regular substitutes are older and chose to not sub this year,” he said.

Carlisle Local Schools Superintendent David Vail said an obstacle for them is sending more students home with common cold or allergy symptoms.

“This is the recommendation by the local health department — if a student has two or more COVID symptoms, they should be evaluated prior to return to school," he said. "This is hard for parents to adjust to, since this is new this year related to COVID.”

Parents weigh in

Several respondents to an online Dayton Daily News survey about returning to school in-person said districts should keep remote-learning because in addition to COVID flu season is approaching. Others said they were worried by climbing infection rates. Most parents who thought learning should remain virtual said it came down to student safety.

“Like grocery schools did for the elders, I think schools should be reducing the general population in schools as much as possible while spread is high,” said Allison Clark, who has middle- and high-schoolers in Dayton Public Schools. “However, schools should be doing that so they can focus on making in-person learning safe for students who do not thrive in virtual school, like students with special education needs.”

Angie August, mom of a high schooler at Stivers School for the Arts, said she understands the dangers of COVID-19 — her sister had it and was on a ventilator — but she trusts DPS and her son to be able to safely return to school in-person.

“It sounds like they’re ready,” she said. "It sounds like they’re very careful and everything seems to be safe. Now it’s going to be up to the kids. It’s a risk. It’s definitely a risk, but it’s also a risk having him home all the time.”

Of the 395 people who answered the question “What do you think is the most appropriate way for students to attend school right now?”, 45 percent chose full-time virtual learning, 38 percent chose full-time in-person, and 18 percent chose hybrid (in-person some days, virtual others).

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The survey showed regional differences. Respondents from Montgomery County favored full-time online over full-time in-person nearly 2-to-1, while slightly more than half of those from Greene County preferred full-time in-person.

The school districts with the most respondents were Dayton, Centerville and Beavercreek.

Dayton parents overwhelmingly chose online, with many noting the spike in cases locally.

Most Centerville parents who responded said they want in-person schooling, though many prefer the hybrid model over full-time in-person to spread out the student population.

Beavercreek parents overwhelmingly chose in-person full-time. Several wrote that kids are at low risk of infection and schools have low rates of infection.

Are schools safe?

Of the 10,000 cases reported in Montgomery County this year, 1,578 have been ages 0-19. This includes 37 hospitalizations and one death.

“Kids we know tend to have a lower chance of getting infected but they can get infected, and thankfully have less severe illness,” said Dr. Sherman Alter, a pediatrician in the infectious disease department of Dayton Children’s Hospital.

Children are more likely to have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all than adults, he said. But those kids are still contagious to parents and grandparents. And an increased spread of coronavirus in the community pushes up the rate in schools, he said.

Alter said parents should consider whether someone in their household is at elevated risk, whether they have the ability to provide at-home education. They should familiarize themselves with their school’s reopening plan — can they enforce mask requirements or avoid using a bus? Where will kids eat lunch?

ExploreDayton-area school districts experiencing bus driver shortage complicated by COVID pandemic

Alter said he thinks it’s reasonable to return kids to school if parents can get satisfactory answers to those questions from their schools and be assured of ongoing communication with school leaders about concerns.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a decision-making tool for parents and caregivers that walks through dozens of questions about whether their school and child have the resources they need at school or at home.

“It’s a tricky time to start thinking about going back to school when there seems to be a bit of upsurge,” Alter said. “But having said that, I think that families when they consider the risk and benefits of going to school, there is relative health risk when one has in-person instruction, but you have to balance that against educational, social, behavioral and emotional risk provided in no in-person instruction.”