PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Coronavirus cases among students and staff attending Rhode Island public schools in-person this fall topped 1,000 last week, marking a new milestone in the public health crisis.
The R.I. Department of Health reported between 245 and 253 new cases last week alone among in-person students and staff, as the state reports in ranges rather than exact numbers.
By comparison, the Health Department reported between 120 and 128 new cases among virtual learners and teachers last week, bringing the cumulative total to between 550 and 558 since school started on Sept. 14. That’s about half the amount reported for in-person learning since schools opened.
The latest numbers don’t include any new cases found this week, when coronavirus numbers continued to climb in Rhode Island and the state reported two single-day records on Tuesday and Wednesday.
While the case numbers are higher for in-person school settings, Gov. Gina Raimondo has insisted that the numbers are comparable to the infection rate in virtual learning because there are fewer students doing remote learning across the state.
“We see almost as much virus in the kids learning at home than the ones in school,” Raimondo said Thursday at her weekly briefing, while also warning of an impending lockdown and the potential need to open a field hospital in Cranston.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green echoed a similar sentiment about case numbers in her weekly interview with 12 News on Thursday.
“When you look at the percentage, it is higher in distance learning,” she said in response to a question about the number of cases actually being higher for in-person school.
But calculating that percentage requires knowing the number of students doing virtual learning versus in-person school, which is a moving target as districts are reverting schools or individual classrooms to remote learning when cases or staff shortages pop up, and parents switch their children from in-person to virtual, or vice-versa.
Raimondo in October said there were about 100,000 students enrolled in in-person school and 50,000 in virtual learning. But the R.I. Department of Education acknowledged Thursday it doesn’t have an accurate count right now of how many students statewide are learning virtually or in-person.
Education Department spokesperson Emily Crowell said school districts are not necessarily notifying the state when they close a school due to staffing levels, or when they revert certain classrooms to virtual learning, making it hard to calculate.
Even having those numbers would not take into account the fact that some students enrolled in-person could have their positive case recorded under the virtual column, if they hadn’t previously been inside a school building in 14 days. That situation would happen if a classroom or school reverted to remote learning temporarily after being open, or if the student or teacher has been in quarantine, for example.
Spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said the Health Department determines whether a student’s positive case will be counted as in-person or virtual during the case investigation, depending on whether they’ve been in a school in 14 days, not based on their initial school enrollment.
Distance-learning students who participate in school sports are also still being counted as virtual cases, according to Wendelken.
Still, state leaders said it’s ultimately safer to be in school, with layers of protection including masks, social distancing when possible, screening for symptoms and a robust K-12 testing system.
Raimondo cited Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, who has gained national acclaim as an expert throughout the crisis.
“I met with him the other day and he said in the beginning he was nervous about in person,” Raimondo said. But after looking at the data, she noted, “he is convinced staying in school for as many kids as long as possible is the right thing to do.”
She noted that kids who are learning virtually are not necessarily staying home and avoiding social gatherings after school and on the weekend.
“There is not a shred of evidence anywhere — in any country, in any state — that school is a vector of spread,” Raimondo said.
The state is not currently doing surveillance testing of asymptomatic students and staff in K-12 schools, which would give a clearer picture of the prevalence of the virus for in-person students compared to those learning virtually. Congregate-living settings, such as nursing homes and prisons, have used surveillance testing to try and mitigate outbreaks, as have colleges and universities.
The state’s K-12 testing system has a hotline for students and staff to call if they have symptoms or have been identified as a close contact of a positive case so they can set up a test.
Infante-Green said last week there have been discussions about doing more testing of students and staff in the coming months.
But teachers are again sounding the alarm about safety, arguing the current rate of spread in the community cannot be ignored.
“We are now in substantial disagreement with the governor on continuing to keep schools open based on the recent data,” Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said on Thursday.
He noted that multiple communities now exceed the benchmarks set by the state over the summer for reopening. (The state abandoned those metrics after using them for the initial reopening decision.)
Multiple school districts reverted schools to remote learning this week amid rising cases and a delay in contact tracing, making it more difficult to ascertain staffing levels and how many people need to quarantine.
Cranston reverted its entire school district of more than 10,000 students to distance learning on Wednesday until they can get a better handle on the contact tracing and quarantines connected to recent cases.