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Athletics fueled March eruption of virus cases

Published: 4/18/2021 3:30:51 PM
Modified: 4/18/2021 3:30:50 PM

In-school transmission of COVID-19 skyrocketed in March, state data show, with the worst outbreaks largely tied to winter sports.

At least 133 people caught the virus at school or a school-related event last month. That’s exactly as many people who were infected in a K-12 setting during the first six months of the school year combined, according to a VtDigger analysis.

Booming cases in Vermont schools came on the heels of high levels of community spread throughout the state, but many of the largest outbreaks also consistently traced back to a common cause: sports.

“We were really transparent with our community around our March situation at the high school,” said Amy Minor, the school superintendent in Colchester, which has seen the largest school-based outbreak in the state so far this year. “It was our boys hockey team.”

Twice a week throughout the year, the state has updated an online dashboard tracking COVID-19 cases in pre-K-12 schools. The dashboard reported each time someone — staff or student — came into school or attended extracurricular activities while they were considered infectious.

What it did not report is when someone is believed to have caught the virus at school.

VtDigger requested outbreak data covering September through March and received a school-by-school breakdown of all known instances of in-school transmission recorded by the state. This also includes cases tied to school sports, other extracurriculars and busing.

The latest data show that, throughout the year, schools have been remarkably successful at keeping virus spread relatively contained when it did occur, with an average of only three to four cases per cluster.

But sports-related outbreaks have been notable outliers. Colchester’s outbreak counted 17 cases; another at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland counted 16; an outbreak at Missisquoi Valley Union High had 13; and the combined U-32-Montpelier boys hockey team had a 10-case outbreak.

And while elementary schools were more likely to see virus outbreaks at the start of the school year, high schools became the dominant sites of infection in March, with 18 separate outbreaks.

Mount St. Joseph Academy’s principal did not respond to requests for comment made by phone and email, so it’s unclear where or why so much spread occurred at that school. But the boys basketball team dropped out of a semifinal game in late March after several players tested positive, according to the Rutland Herald.

At Missisquoi Valley Union High, “a number of athletic programs” had coronavirus cases, according to superintendent Julie Regimbal. They came in such quick succession that state officials urged the school to go remote, which it ultimately did for two weeks.

“We were literally having a meeting about how to bring the seventh- and eighth-graders back full-time when the Department of Health called to say: What are you going to do about all these cases?” Regimbal said.

Whether to allow indoor winter sports to take place was one of the most contentious school reopening debates of the year, and several experts expressed discomfort at the idea. But administration officials nevertheless pressed ahead in early February, giving interscholastic competition the green light.

That’s a decision Health Commissioner Mark Levine said he still stands by.

“It was the right call because students, as we have said in so many press conferences, have been suffering in so many ways and not doing well,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

State officials have repeatedly cited concerns about student mental health in their push to relax COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools to allow for more in-person activities. And while Levine acknowledged that sports had contributed significantly to spread, he argued that the mental health fallout from a canceled season might have produced far graver outcomes.

He went as far as to speculate that allowing athletics to go on might have prevented “a suicide or two,” and suggested infections were not necessarily cause for alarm.

“A lot of times an outbreak, though, doesn’t mean a whole bunch of sick people. It means a bunch of people who have tested positive who are feeling fine or a bunch of people who are quarantined, who now can’t go to school, but actually are going to be doing fine as well,” he said.

Just days earlier, the health commissioner had publicly admonished college students for gathering outdoors, unmasked, at a Burlington beach, citing, among other things, a growing body of evidence that indicates even the young and healthy can develop chronic conditions after infection.

Despite rising cases, many students are scheduled to return for additional face-to-face instruction this month. Teachers and school staff members have been offered vaccinations since early March, and Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has leaned on schools to aim for full-time, in-person instruction by the end of the April vacation break.

On Friday, high school students age 16 and over were also given a two-day head start to register for the vaccine before the rest of the 16+ age group.

The state has also relaxed mitigation measures to make this happen. The 6-foot distancing recommendation once in place for high school students has been reduced to 3 feet.

Officials say that largely reflects new CDC guidelines, but the federal guidance says the 6-foot rule should stay in place where community transmission is high. Vermont’s new guidelines make no such distinction. (As of press time, the CDC considered transmission to be “high” in 11 of Vermont’s 14 counties.)

While the April return date to full in-person instruction has always been cast by administration officials as an aspiration and not a mandate, the Agency of Education told schools on Friday that districts could not impose stricter health standards than the ones recommended by the Vermont Department of Health. That means districts cannot, for example, require students who travel to quarantine as they await the results of a COVID-19 test.

Jeanné Collins, a past president of the Vermont Superintendents Association, speaking on behalf of the organization, said that continuing to relax the rules in the face of growing spread “just does not make sense.”

Cases are popping up in schools constantly, she said, adding that she had been notified of yet another student case just moments before speaking to a reporter.

“We have Dr. Levine standing up there saying, ‘We’re so close to the end, but don’t give up your caution now.’ Well, this feels like the schools are being told to give up,” she said.




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