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Health officials: As COVID-19 surges, LI schools remain safe for children

School officials attribute low infection rates in schools

School officials attribute low infection rates in schools to rigorous mask and social distancing requirements, aggressive contact tracing, strict quarantine standards and the lower risk the virus poses to children. Credit: Barry Sloan

With the coronavirus surging on Long Island, there is still at least one place where COVID-19 does not appear to be spreading: schools.

About 5,455 students ages 5 to 17 and 2,275 school staffers on Long Island have tested positive for the virus since many of the more than 400,000 schoolchildren returned to classrooms in September, state data shows. But health officials say they’ve traced fewer than 10 of those cases back to local K-12 schools, a fact they say suggests in-person instruction can be safe if the right precautions are in place.

The Suffolk County Department of Health is aware of only seven cases that originated in a school, and all of those were among a group of teachers who held a birthday party in a small faculty room.

In Nassau County, health officials said they have not identified any cases that were transmitted in schools.

"We can trace cases to parties, to social gatherings, to people playing poker, to people sitting in a house watching football together," Nassau Health Commissioner Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein said. "But we’re not tracing the spread of disease to classrooms. And I think that is so remarkable that we’ve been able to keep most of our schools open most days."

Eisenstein stressed there could have been some instances of transmission in schools, especially given that many cases involve people who do not have symptoms, but his department has not yet found any.

Local health and education officials said the dearth of cases in schools so far is welcome news after a summer of uncertainty about the risks of sending Long Island children back into classrooms during a pandemic.

"I wasn’t sure what to expect," Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said. "It’s a pleasant surprise that the school spread has been so low."

Crediting changes in schools

It’s also a validation, officials said, of the sweeping changes local educators enacted on the fly to reopen in September, from overhauling class schedules to building aggressive contact tracing operations.

"The infection control setup in school — with everyone masking, with good hand washing, with social distancing — is working," said Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. "Schools are the safest place for your children."

In the Baldwin school district, so much as a cough or a headache — both possible symptoms of COVID-19 — could require students to leave school and not return until 14 days have passed or they’ve tested negative for the virus.

"We’ve been very clear with our families and our staff that if you are not feeling well, you need to stay home," said Baldwin Superintendent Shari Camhi, who noted none of the district’s seven schools have had to close this fall because of cases.

In the Syosset school district, after seeing recommendations to rely on masks or social distancing or plastic barriers in classrooms to prevent spread, the district opted for all three measures.

"Having that redundancy is just a way of helping us mitigate risk," Superintendent Thomas Rogers said.

Contact tracing is key

Contact tracing is also to credit for schools’ success so far, officials said, with educators taking on sometimes major roles in a process that’s typically the domain of public health professionals.

When a Baldwin student or staffer tests positive for the virus, as many as seven school administrators and nurses may be involved in identifying anyone whom the person had close contact with in school. After poring over schedules and seating charts and conducting interviews, the district sends a report on their findings to the Nassau health department. Often the district completes the process in a matter of hours, Camhi said.

"They call us now and have done the complete investigations," Eisenstein said of school districts. "This is why we’ve been able to keep many schools open."

The work is not easy, educators said.

"It’s a herculean task," said Donna Jones, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district. "We still have other jobs to do."

The scant transmission in local schools reflects global trends. There have been few outbreaks reported in schools since early 2020, according to an October report by the World Health Organization, and many cases that have originated in schools were likely introduced by adult staffers.

Children reportedly contract the virus less often than adults, the report noted, and their cases are typically milder.

"Children and schools are unlikely to be the main drivers of COVID-19 transmission, when community transmission is low and when appropriate mitigation measures are applied," the report read.

School buses also have not been sites of spread on Long Island, officials said. In Suffolk County, only four cases have been traced back to buses, health officials said. All of them involved drivers and attendants on minibuses.

Whether local schools continue to thwart transmission as case numbers climb remains to be seen. Nachman said the risk of spread in schools may increase this winter, but she noted students and school staffers are already accustomed to COVID-19 protocols, which should help them weather future challenges.

Some educators aren’t taking any chances and plan to keep rigorous COVID-19 procedures in place.

"This is not an invitation to take more risks — the fact that we haven’t seen transmission," Rogers said. "But it might be evidence that what we’re doing, we should continue to do."

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