Delaware schools on watch for rise in virus cases after break

With Thanksgiving approaching, the state and its schools are bracing for a potential rise in coronavirus cases as people celebrate the holiday in traditionally large groups.

“I think everybody’s got concerns because of gatherings and people traveling from outside the community,” said Lake Forest Superintendent Steven Lucas.

“That’s my biggest concern because when we look at our particular ZIP codes that feed our school district, we’re really in pretty safe conditions. So you worry that people are going to travel, either north upstate or even into other states, and we just pray that it doesn’t end up changing the climate here in our area.”

As the holiday approaches — with many districts heading into their breaks this week — some have tried to glean their community’s plans.

Sussex Academy, a charter school in Georgetown, emailed a survey to families Monday to understand whether its community would be gathering in or out of the state, and the number of people likely to be there. Eventually, the charter decided it would move to fully remote instruction until Monday, Dec. 7 to “allow families to monitor their health and the situation within the local communities.”

Academy of Dover, which is currently remote through Nov. 30 after a staff member tested positive, sent out a survey to gauge if families would be traveling through the holiday season in November and December, said Michele Marinucci, head of school.

“We’re just now getting that data back and looking at that and, from an initial glance, the majority of our families are not planning to travel so that’s good news on that aspect,” she said. “We’re also fully aware that the numbers are continuing to increase at a pretty steady and concerning rate.”

Messaging about the holiday came up Tuesday during Gov. John Carney’s weekly coronavirus briefing.

The Division of Public Health urged families to not hold Thanksgiving dinners with members of other households, citing some Halloween parties which the DPH’s contact tracing team determined led to significant community spread of the virus.

“I’m really astonished by how many Halloween parties took place in our state,” DPH Director Karyl Rattay said. “I do think that is part of what really drove some of the acceleration that we’re now seeing. So now we’re pretty fearful of what might happen with Thanksgiving parties.”

In an email, Jen Brestel, a spokeswoman for DPH, said that knowing “your COVID-19 status” helps protect others from infection.

“But testing results only cover time up to the date of testing,” she said. “We want to emphasize that people should really limit close contacts with others by social distancing, to wear a face covering at all times even around family members and to maintain frequent hand hygiene.”

While there have been school closures due to COVID-19 cases in school buildings, transmission isn’t widely occurring in schools, Dr. Rattay said Tuesday.

“Although the schools have been dealing with a lot of positive cases, those cases are infections brought in from the outside,” she said.

That is what prompted some districts to urge families to continue mitigation strategies or remind them of the risks — like notes that went out from Cape Henlopen and Appoquinimink superintendents.

“Gov. Carney and Dr. Rattay already addressed this extensively with the public on Tuesday,” Indian River School District spokesman David Maull said. “However, we do encourage parents to monitor their children for symptoms of COVID and to keep them home if they are not feeling well.”

When students return, Dr. Marinucci said her school has already increased what they’re doing in terms of sanitation (fogging, wiping down high touch areas, limiting students in the hallways, etc.).

“We’re doing our absolute best to do anything we can to make sure that we keep our school as safe as possible,” she said. “We understand that a lot of our families rely on the school as a safe place for their students to go during the day so it’s our goal to keep on having our students attend as long as it remains within that safe zone.”

Dr. Lucas noted that monthly testing is available to staff as well. As students return, he said it’s important the district “stay aware, stay alert and continue to implement the mitigation measures that have worked so well so far.”

“It really is important that kids are going to school every day and we’ve got to do everything we can to keep the ball rolling,” he said.

Colleges and universities

For some college students, the break marks the end of residential life on campus.

Following Friday, Wesley College students returned home. The semester will continue virtually, with students off campus, said Laura Bingham Mayse, a spokeswoman for the college.

Students are slated to return in January for the spring semester.

The campus has had 20 cases — 17 students, two staff, one faculty — cumulatively since March.

As of Nov. 9, there were six positive cases, with 26 quarantining off-campus and six isolating off campus.

At Delaware State University, a majority of students will be heading home for Thanksgiving and won’t be back until the new year. Some will be staying on campus through the holidays, and COVID-19 testing will continue, President Tony Allen said in a letter to students.

“Now you face the most important challenge: keeping your families safe,” he wrote, advising students not to believe that just “because you left campus COVID-free that you will arrive home that way.”

“Through the entire holidays, don’t forget the precautions you’ve practiced for the last three months. Wear your mask when you go out. Wash your hands. Keep getting tested, and encourage other members of your family to do the same,” he said. “As Gov. John Carney has said to all of Delaware, ‘Give thanks, not COVID.’”

As of the end of last week, the university reported it had conducted 37,000 COVID-19 tests, with a 0.4% positivity rate.

Meanwhile, the University of Delaware will move all classes and exams entirely virtual following Thanksgiving break.

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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