Delaware teachers group asks for district accountability in COVID crisis

As COVID-19 cases increase statewide — including in school buildings — the Delaware State Education Association is calling for more oversight from the governor’s office at the district level during the pandemic.

“We need the oversight and assurance that districts are doing all they can to abide by these health and safety guidelines, and we need the state to hold them accountable,” DSEA President Stephanie Ingram said in a prepared statement.

The letter comes as the new positive COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people, one the state’s three criteria for the reopening of schools, is at its highest level since the state released guidance mid-summer.

Delaware’s new case rate was at 216.9 new cases per 100,000 people for the week of Nov. 7 to Nov. 13, according to the Delaware Division of Public Health. It is firmly in the “red” category for the third week in a row, which signifies significant community spread.

The rate of 216.9 is more than double the necessary number to get back in the yellow stage. It increased from 135.9 new cases per 100,000 people the week prior (Oct. 31 to Nov. 6).

The two remaining criteria, percentage of tests which are positive and average daily hospitalizations per 100,000 people, are each still in yellow.

The percentage of positive tests rose to 5.4% compared to 4.3% the week prior. Average daily hospitalizations per 100,000 people increased to 12.9 from 11.4.

In its letter, DSEA suggested several measures: More guidance as to when schools should be closed by the district, more guidance when it comes to increasing the number of students in a building, public and district communication regarding re-entry plans (stating that school boards should not be “relinquishing the right to approve a re-entry plan or relinquish the right for the public to weigh in on their plan”) and distribution of personal protective equipment.

“Many educators have to buy PPE for themselves and their students out of their own pockets in districts that have not supplied it or do not have an ample supply,” Ms. Ingram said. “Most disturbing is the lack of district supplied full body PPE gear for those educators who work with children with severe disabilities.”

Ms. Ingram said that looking at the data in the state, there has been a “drastic and dramatic rise in the number and rate of infections,” pointing to the increasing numbers in the three counties.

“Those statistics paired with us heading into the holiday season traditionally marked by family gatherings — which will undoubtedly happen whether we like it or not — causes us to be concerned that the rise in new cases and percent-positive tests will continue,” Ms. Ingram said.

She said now is the time for “strong and responsible leadership.”

“If these things are not able to be done, and we can’t ensure that being in school is a safe choice, then we have no other option than to ask for districts to return to full remote learning environments until the compliance is enforced and our numbers stop increasing at a rapid pace and have decreased to a level that ensures a safe return for students and staff,” she said.

Jonathan Starkey, spokesman from the governor’s office, acknowledged that educators want to be in school, and want it to be safe to do so.

“We agree and will continue to work with school leaders across the state to make sure we can safely get more students and educators back in classrooms,” he said.

Over the summer, Gov. John Carney greenlit schools opening for hybrid instruction, but left it up to the local school district and charter leadership to determine the path forward. Some opened hybrid from the start. Others slowly phased it in. Most districts have students in buildings at some capacity now.

In an interview last week, Dr. Rick Hong, medical director at Delaware’s Division of Public Health, said there is concern about the trend and they’ve been in “constant communication” with schools regarding it.

“The expectation is not for schools to react on a week-by-week basis on the changes in colors,” he said. “It’s really the trend we’re most interested in.”

He added that DPH encourages schools to look at what’s going on in their local area, “because we understand there are operational differences if you look at the local setting versus the statewide setting.”

“If there’s truly an outbreak, we will work with schools to see if there is a need for closure,” he said. “Currently, DPH has not recommended closure of any schools because the schools have done a good job of trying to maintain those infection control measures, but I do know there are some operational challenges that may lead to their decision to close schools. We are in constant communication, and we do work together to determine the best recommendation if an outbreak truly were to occur. Right now, there have been no outbreaks, as far as I know, in schools that required our involvement for closure.”

DSEA’s letter asking for more oversight, and the increase in the case rate, comes as Milford School District closed three schools Monday in response to positive COVID-19 cases.

In a message early Monday, the district said it would be closing Morris Early Childhood Center, Benjamin Banneker Elementary School and Milford High School after officials were “informed of multiple positive covid-19 testing results last night, in addition to the positive test results communicated earlier during the weekend.”

“We apologize for the late notice; however, we consider it very important to communicate with the Division of Public Health for their guidance prior to students and staff returning to the impacted schools to begin this week,” the notice reads. “We hope that this is a very brief pause of in-person student learning for students of these schools.”

In its release Monday, the district hadn’t yet outlined the duration of the closure. A spokeswoman said they would be working with DPH and would notify families Monday.

Dr. Rick Pescatore, chief physician at DPH, said it’s recommended all children attending school in hybrid mode are tested once monthly.

“That’s in addition to any testing that’s recommended on top of that, whether that’s from a primary care doctor maybe performing testing or whether schools are initiating testing initiatives of their own,” he said.

Dr. Hong said that even if a student tests negative, they should be following social distancing, proper hand hygiene and mask-wearing protocols.

“We’ve been working very closely with the schools to maintain those infection control practices within the school setting, but we also ask that families maintain those infection control practices outside the school setting as well,” he said.

While cases have been cropping up in districts statewide, impacting staff and students, Dr. Hong said that, through DPH’s epidemiological investigation, they’re finding transmission within schools is “very unlikely.”

“That’s why it’s so important for families that they maintain these infection control measures outside of the school setting,” he said, adding, “We have seen a couple cases where we believe it’s been transmitted in schools, and it’s linked to non-compliance with the infection control measures.”

In her letter, Ms. Ingram expressed concern that what they’re seeing outside the schools may soon happen in the buildings.

“We are told that our schools are a safe place to be,” Ms. Ingram said. “If what is happening outside of our schools is what is increasing the numbers — how do we deal with it? Because, it will soon affect the safety inside our schools.”

Staff writers Tim Mastro and Noah Zucker contributed to this story.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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