EAST ROCKHILL – While it's not always possible to tell exactly where a person contracted COVID-19, it appears that only two of the more than 100 Pennridge School District students and staff who tested positive since the start of the school year got the virus at school, the district says.
“The vast majority of our cases are from outside of the schools,” Superintendent David Bolton said in a telephone interview.
“It does seem to indicate that our health and safety plans are in fact working to keep people safe while they're here at school,” he said. “And that's one thing we continue to monitor because we do want to make sure that the schools are safe for our students and our staff based on the protocols we've put in place.”
As had been expected, there was an upward spike in the numbers the week after Thanksgiving, he said.
Increases were also reported in Bucks County and across the state.
The Pennridge dashboard, which can be viewed on the district's website, pennridge.org, showed 42 new positive test results, including 28 at the high school, the week after Thanksgiving. That brought the total for the school year thus far to 109. On Dec. 7, another nine cases were added.
Some of the spike was from an actual increase in the number of cases, but some was because the figures are based on the date when the district receives the information that the student or staff member tested positive, Bolton said.
During Thanksgiving week, the schools were only open two days, “which means there were many cases that following week that were reported to us, but they really happened during Thanksgiving week,” he said.
With the spiking numbers, there have been questions about whether schools should be closed and how the decision is made to close schools. Pennridge has not closed its buildings nor has it changed the options being offered students, which are hybrid or full-time remote at the high school; full-time remote or full-time in-class for middle school students; or full-time remote, full-time in class or hybrid for elementary students.
There are two parts to the decision on whether to close a school building, Bolton said.
The first is the new state order issued on Nov. 23 that gives metrics based on the size of the school and the number of COVID-19 cases at the school, he said.
If the number of cases is more than the number allowed under the order, Bolton said, “You have to stay remote until the district is able to investigate the cases, they're able to clean and disinfect the spaces, and the Bucks County Department of Health is able to conduct contact tracing for the cases outside of the school.”
What many people don't realize, though, is that the state order doesn't apply to all the positive tests, he said.
“The state order only includes cases where the individual was at school, or involved in a school activity, on or after their onset date. This means that many of the cases reported across the district do not apply to the state order,” the district wrote in information emailed to parents.
The district numbers, meanwhile, include all the students and staff who have tested positive.
“Families get emails and they think how come the school isn't closing and it's because those cases, or many of those cases, have not impacted the school community and so they don't count against the state order,” Bolton said. “That's been the most confusing thing. That's the number one question I've been getting from families and even staff members.”
To help clarify the situation, the district added a new “State order case count” column to the dashboard, listing the number of district cases that would fall under the state order. On the night of Dec. 7, there were no district cases in that category.
The other thing the district looks at when it starts considering closing a building, all the buildings or in-school learning for a group, such as a particular grade level, is whether there is intra-school spread, Bolton said.
“You start looking for patterns as to whether a certain grade level or a certain building is seeing an impact based on school spread,” he said.
The dashboard gives a count of all the district students and staff that have tested positive, including ones who are doing remote learning and are not in the school buildings.
“We made the commitment from the very beginning to report any case that involved a Pennridge employee or a Pennridge student, regardless of the academic model,” Bolton said.
Parents continue to be given the choice of which learning option their child will receive, he said. Since the beginning of the school year, about 500 have switched to a different option.
“In September and October, we had about 300 and the vast majority of those were coming back to school, so they were families who were either full-remote or hybrid and looking to change to more face-to-face,” he said. “Since November and the increase of cases in the community, we've had about 200 requests and about 60 percent of them have been in the other direction to ask for full remote.”