Every week that goes by – if not every day – we learn more about the steps we need to take to keep our schools both safe and open amidst the continuing COVID pandemic. This memo outlines a number of adjustments to our Safe and Open Schools Plan that incorporate lessons we have learned in Rochester and evidence and guidance from experts and schools outside our district.
Before outlining the changes we are making to our Safe and Open Schools Plan, I want to thank all of the school staff who have helped to develop and implement that plan to date. Our school nurses, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, student nutrition services staff, bus drivers, custodians, and many others have worked diligently to put our plan into motion, and they have done so in extraordinarily challenging circumstances as they juggle complex public health requirements with providing students with a high-quality education and helping them re-engage in their school communities following an extended period of distance learning at home. I also want to thank the parents who are supporting the challenges we are taking to keep their students safe, even when it causes significant disruption in their children’s education and in their personal and professional lives. Most important, I want to thank our students, who have adhered to the requirements of our plan and remained resilient in the face of a historic pandemic.
What have been the results of our efforts to date? While many factors beyond the control of schools influence the spread of COVID, here is a brief summary of the data we have available on the transmission of the Coronavirus in Rochester Public Schools between August 30, 2021, and October 3, 2021:
- 312 students have contracted known cases of COVID since the start of the school year. Given that Rochester Public Schools has an estimated student enrollment of 17,800 students, this means that just under 2% of Rochester Public Schools students have contracted known cases of COVID this year.
- Of the 312 students who have contracted COVID, 94% were unvaccinated, while 6% were vaccinated.
- 17% of the students who have contracted COVID are high school students, 20% are middle school students, and 63% are students in our elementary schools.
- Since the start of the school year, 1,642 students have been placed into quarantine, which totals just over 9% of all students in the school district.
In order to continue the progress we have made thus far in controlling the spread of Coronavirus in our schools, we are making the following enhancements to our Safe and Open Schools Plan:
Thresholds for placing classrooms, grade levels, and schools into quarantine and distance learning
While the vast majority of the students who have been placed in quarantine since the start of the 2021-2022 school year have been placed into that status as individual students or in a small group of students, in some instances a sufficient number of students have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 or has shown symptoms of COVID-19 to merit closing an entire classroom and moving to distance learning. Given the experience we have gained since the start of the school year with the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, we believe it is now appropriate to articulate the thresholds that we will use to identify classrooms, grade levels, and schools for potential quarantine and distance learning. When each of the following thresholds is reached, school district staff would conduct a detailed examination of the status of the classroom, grade level, or school in question and would likely move to distance learning for 14 days.
Those thresholds are:
- Classroom: 15% of staff and students in the classroom with symptoms of COVID-19 and/or confirmed positive COVID-19.
- Grade level: 50% of staff and students in a grade level are positive, symptomatic, or quarantined.
- School Building: 50% of staff and students in the school building are positive, symptomatic, or quarantined.
Expansion of Testing
Rochester Public Schools has developed a plan to offer free, optional testing opportunities for all (both vaccinated and unvaccinated) students and staff. Two types of screening tests will be available: the BinaxNOW OTC student screening tests and the Vault Health COVID-19 testing kits. The Vault Health testing kits are already available for students and staff at their schools and can be taken and turned into schools twice a week. RPS will send the completed tests to the lab for processing.
Controlling the transmission of COVID within the confined but also highly mobile (in many senses of the word) environment of school buses has been an extraordinary challenge since the start of the school year. Looking ahead, we will create as much space as possible between riders on all forms of transportation operated by RPS. All drivers and riders are required to wear masks. Due to the high transmission rate of COVID-19 in our community and limited human and financial resources to conduct the complex and often inaccurate work of contact tracing following the identification of COVID cases on school buses, we are no longer conducting contact tracing on routes operated by First Student, the company that provides transportation to the vast majority of Rochester Public Schools students. Instead, once five or more confirmed positive COVID cases have been reached on a single route, our schools notify families that there have been five or more cases on the route on certain dates. If and when we have a sufficient number of staff to reinstitute high-quality contact tracing on school buses in the future, we will do so, but until we have the capacity to create and monitor accurate seating charts on our buses 3 and take other steps, we are unfortunately not able to continue that practice on most school bus routes. We will, however, continue to conduct contact tracing on all vans operated by Rochester Public Schools staff and on all athletic and activity buses.
Rochester Public Schools recently collected deidentified, anonymous data through the Minnesota Immunization Information Connection (MIIC), through which we learned that 88% of RPS staff have already been vaccinated according. Given that high rate of vaccination and the extensive school and district resources that would need to be diverted to implementing a verifiable vaccine mandate, I do not recommend we institute such a vaccine mandate for RPS staff at this time. I have reached that conclusion in part because our team and external advisors agree that instituting a vaccine mandate that does not require verification (such as showing a COVID-19 vaccine card) would not meaningfully increase vaccination rates among staff in our school district. In contrast, a verifiable vaccine mandate would be more reliable, but would take significant human and financial resources to implement at a time when those resources are urgently needed to implement contact tracing, quarantines, and other aspects of our plan. Still further, there is a chance that Minnesota will be required to implement a vaccine mandate as articulated in forthcoming federal policies, and we will be better able to design a local approach after those federal requirements have been announced. In the meantime, we will continue to urge all RPS staff, parents, and students to get vaccinated and will partner with Olmsted County to conduct additional vaccine clinics at our school sites in the weeks and months ahead.
Since the start of the pandemic, the building ventilation systems in all of our facilities have been calibrated to meet expert recommendations for greater fresh air levels, including more frequent filter changes and increased air exchange rates throughout the school day. Building on that foundation, our Health and Safety Department will soon present a major investment in new air purifying systems for School Board review and approval as needed. Funding for this investment will come from federal resources available through the American Recovery Plan.
Additional Staff Support
Staff at every level of Rochester Public Schools continue to work extremely hard to implement all aspects of the Safe and Open Schools Plan. Federal funding through the American Recovery Plan will also make it possible to hire at least four new school district staff people who will be flexibly deployed to school sites to support testing, contract tracing, reaching out to parents, and other elements of our plan.
Alternative To Quarantine Pilot
In recent weeks, Rochester Public Schools has observed an increase in positive cases, the vast majority of which have occurred at the elementary level due to the fact that vaccines have not yet been approved for students younger than 12. We have also observed an increase in the number of students who were identified as close contacts and then placed into quarantine who subsequently develop the virus.
In an effort to identify new approaches to keeping students safe while also keeping them in school despite the transmissibility of the Delta variant, RPS will pilot an alternative to quarantine approach at one school at all three levels (elementary, middle, high) beginning after MEA break, October 25. The alternative to quarantine pilots will include the following components:
- Universal masking
- Daily, at-home, rapid antigen testing (BinaxNOW OTC) required to remain in school for unvaccinated, asymptomatic close contact students only
- Qualifying exposures are for the classroom setting only, household exposures are excluded from this plan.
- Classroom close contacts will be notified upon the report of a confirmed positive case and will be provided options for alternate quarantine.
- Close contact students choosing not to opt-in to daily testing will be required to quarantine per the District’s current plan.
- Close contacts choosing to participate in the alternate quarantine option must remain home the first day of quarantine to ensure proper testing occurs within 24-hours of notification. The student may return to school the next day with proof of a negative test.
- In the event where the District threshold is met, students will not qualify for alternate quarantine.
- Data will be monitored daily to identify potential outbreaks at which time alternate quarantine options would cease and standard quarantine implemented.
Variations of this “test to stay” approach have been utilized successfully to reduce time students spend in quarantine while also preserving core COVID safety protocols in both the United Kingdom and in Michigan. I look forward to briefing the School Board and the larger RPS community on the progress of these important pilot projects as they get underway later this month.
Review the entire plan below: