Williston schools have had many more students test positive for COVID than other schools in the Champlain Valley School District and no one seems to know why.
Jocelyn Bouyea, who works at Shelburne Community School, is the district’s lead nurse and is coordinating the district’s response to the virus, and even she is puzzled by the number of cases in the Williston schools.
Bouyea talks to the Vermont Department of Health daily and, one many days, to top infectious disease experts. Everyone she talks to is scratching their heads about the mystery.
“The best answer that we can come up with is just our schools are a reflection of our communities. The cases in Williston for non-school people are reflected in kid cases,” Bouyea said.
Although some infections appear to be school-based, most stem from gatherings outside of school like birthday parties, she said.
A number of Williston parents attended a Nov. 2 school board meeting to express their displeasure with how the growth of infections in their schools has been handled by the district.
Jessica Phelan said that while it was great for kids to be in school during this time, she believes stronger protocols to guard against transmission of the virus should have been enacted when cases began to go up in September.
Phelan wanted to know what the school system was going to do to make up for the lost learning days or support services.
She has two children at Williston Central who have been quarantined five times and missed 22 days of school in the short time school has been back in session because they were identified as being close contacts to someone who tested positive for COVID.
Last year, Williston parent Caroline Dahlstron said her children missed five days of school for the entire year because of being quarantined.
“We felt very safe in the school system,” Dahlstron said. “This year my fourth grader has missed 25 days and my kindergartner has missed 15. That’s just in the first two months of the school year.”
“I can personally state my family is in crisis. We have weathered enormous storms before,” Dahlstron said. “What we’ve gone through this year I feel is about to take us down. We do not see a path forward for our family. We don’t know what to do. I’ve never seen my family like this before.”
Katie Devitt, who has three children in Williston schools, said her family has experienced 10 quarantines with the longest being nine days for her middle schooler.
Devitt wants to know what the plan is for students who’ve had to miss in-person school because of being quarantined.
“I believe that this year is harder than last year, and I believe that families need to have absolute transparency,” said Laura Pratt, who has a sixth and third grader.
In the first quarantine for one of her children, she said they had to wait until 8 p.m. each night to find out if their child would be going to school the next day.
Board member Josilyn Adams, who is also a Williston parent, is concerned because students are no longer eating outside in a tent at Allen Brook School.
“Last year they ate in the classroom. Now they’re eating in the cafeteria, although we have seen an increase in positive cases,” she said.
Despite parent frustration, the school board didn’t respond to the concerns expressed at the meeting.
School board chair Angela Arsenault reiterated, as she has done before, that board members are not supposed to engage in discussions during the public comment portion of the meetings.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t a space where we can provide responses in the moment,” Arsenault said.
She encouraged people who want a response to email email@example.com.
Bonnie Birdsall, the school system’s director of digital learning and communication, said if they knew why the number of cases is so high in Williston schools they would be able to reduce it.
Rather than being quarantined, students who have been identified as having close contact with someone at the school who has tested positive for COVID, can now opt into the test-to-stay program, Birdsall said.
Students in the test-to-stay program are tested every day at the beginning of the school day for seven days with tests that yield fast results. If they test negative for all seven days, that’s the end of their testing regime, said Bouyea, the district’s nurse.
The test-to-stay program started at the Williston schools and at Shelburne Community School last Monday, Nov. 1. Four hundred students — 30 of them at Shelburne Community School — were able to go to school.
“Four hundred parents went to work,” Bouyea said.
For whatever reason, Williston had a high number of cases last year and it’s been hit with a high number again this year. With the addition of the delta variant there have been 50 positive tests for people at Williston schools — and that is not just students, it could be teachers, administration or staff, she said.
Shelburne Community School had the second highest rate of positive test results with nine this year. Champlain Valley Union High has had eight and Hinesburg Community School has had four. Charlotte Central School has not had any students test positive this year, Bouyea said.
Champlain Valley Union High School has a 92-percent vaccination rate. Even so, she said a fourth of the cases in the district have been breakthrough cases, or cases where someone who has been vaccinated still catches the virus.
“The good news is that most of our fully vaccinated have very mild cases,” Bouyea said.
The message parents should take is to “keep sick children home even if they are vaccinated,” she said. Dealing with COVID has begun to seem like a strange dream where she can’t remember what she used to do as a school nurse.
Bouyea said, “You know, we haven’t seen a case of head lice in two years. I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again. Nobody may ever get close enough.”