As the new school year at Johnson and Hyde Park elementary schools was marked immediately by outbreaks of COVID-19, top officials at both schools took on the bulk of contact tracing and carried the weight of the crisis.
According to minutes from a Sept. 13 meeting of the Lamoille North Supervisory Union school board, Johnson Elementary principal David Manning and a nurse became full-time COVID workers when the cases were discovered.
As of Tuesday, there were seven positive cases at the school according to the state, which includes at least two fifth graders. Over 100 students, or 48 percent of the school’s population, were required to quarantine and temporarily switch to remote learning.
According to district superintendent Catherine Gallagher, if over 50 percent of the student body was still in the building, it would still technically count as a full school day. Gallagher could not be reached for comment before press time.
Manning and his staff personally made over 100 phone calls to close contacts with the COVID-positive children. According to Manning, he “essentially begged” for more support in a long meeting with the Vermont Department of Health.
The department eventually assigned him a team, though contact tracing has, for the most part, been outsourced to AM Trace, a private company based in Virginia.
Gallagher told the News & Citizen last week that she understood the health department was “severely short staffed.”
Unlike last year, Manning noted, where every case at Johnson Elementary was asymptomatic, this year students are experiencing symptoms and recovery is taking longer.
Hyde Park Elementary principal Dianne Reilly and her staff were also alone in contract tracing efforts, though she did not request assistance from the state and no further cases other than the initial three were reported by the state this week.
The first COVID case occurred on the first day of school, Reilly said. She made 150 phone calls over a two-week period and only encountered two upset parents.
According to comments made by Gallagher at the Sept 13 meeting, if a decision to close a school for a day or two was made, it would be made by the state health department, as there were no remote learning options made available this year because the district felt that was not what was best for children.
Gallagher also said she thought COVID-19 vaccines might soon be required for all school employees along with an option to test regularly if unvaccinated, stressing that this would be a federal decision.
Despite the COVID-19 outbreaks, the small group of anti-mask parents, including Hyde Park Elementary parent Savannah McKenzie, returned to face the school board.
During the public comment period, McKenzie said COVID was not a threat. Claudia Stauber, a Morrisville resident, claimed masks exposed children to dangerous levels of carbon dioxide, a claim that’s been debunked by doctors and scientists in both Vermont and nationwide.
Dannie McFarland, a Cambridge resident and manager at Smugglers’ Notch Resort, complained of the troubles she ran into getting her child a negative COVID test and accused the board of not adequately examining the science of mask wearing.
Gallagher said people are entitled to their opinions, but affirmed that mask wearing was protecting students. Otherwise, she said, every student in Hyde Park and Johnson would likely be positive for COVID-19.
She accused area families of not masking properly and causing the delta variant to rip through the community, implying that a small group of people were affecting the overall health of the larger school community.