School leaders and health experts in Richardson agree, students are best served in school.
But what happens when the spread of COVID-19 is out of control?
The rapid increase of cases at one school in the district led officials to quarantine and close an entire campus for 10 days.
The superintendent called an emergency school board meeting to discuss the issue.
Despite some opposition, RISD board members voted Friday to keep the district’s mask mandate and safety protocols in place, including contact tracing.
Parents arrived at Brentfield Elementary School on Friday to pick up their child’s virtual lesson plan for next week. Students on this campus will return to virtual learning for 10 days, beginning Tuesday.
On Thursday, the district closed Brentfield and canceled Friday classes after reporting 29 COVID-19 cases.
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Since the start of the school year, the school has reported 41 cases in all, 29 in just the past 10 days.
District leaders said they called Dallas County health officials to report concerns last week regarding a sudden rise in cases among Brentfield students in second, fifth and sixth grade.
The district, in consultation with health experts, determined its current mitigation strategies were not stopping the spread.
COVID-19 cases and students instructed to quarantine after being in close contact with a COVID-positive classmate led to a 15% absentee rate at Brentfield.
The board meeting discussed the closure, COVID-19 cases and held a vote on RISD’s mask mandate and safety guidelines.
Superintendent Dr. Jeannie Stone told board members the district has been in constant contact with city and Dallas County health officials, who were in favor of closing the school in order to stop further spread of the virus.
Doctor David Bonnet called into the board meeting on Friday. He has been the city’s health advisor for almost 27 years.
One woman who spoke during the public comment period asked the board, “if masks work so well, then why are you continuing to contact trace and now shutdown schools and move them to virtual learning?”
Dr. Bonnet said masks and contact tracing are vital in their fight.
“We’ve got to keep as many kids in school as we can,” he told the board. “Masking does not stop the virus, but it cuts down on the transmission so that we can keep the numbers down.
Bonnet later joined NBC 5 for an interview via Zoom.
“The purpose of the mask mandate is to slow the spread,” said Bonnett. “You’re not going to stop it with masks. A study out of Bangladesh said it was only a 10-20% decrease, but every little bit helps.”
RISD’s director of nursing also spoke during the emergency meeting and provided an update on the number of COVID-19 cases district-wide.
RISD had a total of 1,854 positive cases among students last school year, she said.
So far this year, “we have seen 537 student cases,” said Ashley Jones. “You can see that is a significant amount to push through in 13 days.”
Trustee Regina Harris asked Jones if she knows what’s behind the higher number of cases at Brentfield.
“Honestly, no,” responded Jones.
This particular campus was among the first to report a rise in cases, she said.
It’s possible it was simply able to spread very quickly, early on.
Jones also informed board members a sixth-grade student who is currently battling coronavirus in the ICU. The district could not confirm whether the student attends Brentfield, citing privacy laws.
When it comes to Brentfield’s 15% absentee rate and the subsequent decision to shut down, Jones said the same action would have been recommended had it been flu cases that caused a 15% absentee rate.
As for the high numbers across the district, Jones told board members some schools have reported cases of defiant parents.
“Parents are binding together and not testing on purpose,” she said. “They don’t want to let us know that they’re positive. We’re also getting feedback that they’re sending their kids, symptomatic. We know this. Some by just not knowing, because sometimes it does present as allergies and then some intentionally because they can’t not miss school or because the parent doesn’t really perceive it as a threat. So, this is the environment that we are starting out school with.”
Brentfield is not the only school considered a ‘hotspot for COVID-19 spread’ right now.
Jones said they are concerned about seven campuses, including Bowie and Richardson Heights Elementary Schools.
Both Brentfield and Bowie are located in the city of Dallas and are in close proximity to each other.
Bowie is reporting 23 active cases of COVID-19, including five cases added today, said Jones.
If cases continue to increase, it is possible this and other schools may be temporarily closed.
Dr. Bonnet told board members another overarching goal is to keep local hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients, both COVID-19 and not.
When asked about the increasing number of school closures around the state, Texas Classroom Teacher's Association staff attorney Julie Leahy said the start of the school year has been a difficult and stressful time for their members.
While she said teachers remain concerned for their health and their students' health, closures provide a challenge in making up for the substantial loss sustained over the last 18 months.
“That requires a pivot from both the teacher and the students. It is an interruption in instruction and it’s disruptive. But at the same time, I think a lot of teachers recognize that it’s necessary to keep kids healthy," said Leahy.
As of yesterday, 12 people had to wait for a bed at Richardson Methodist, he announced.
“If the numbers continue to climb, we’re going to have to start backing off elective cases again and that means someone with a bad knee, a bad hip is not going to be able to get that taken care of,” he said.
Bonnet also told RISD he predicts the coming two to three months will be the ‘wild wild west’ for school districts grappling with coronavirus cases.
“I think we’re going to see big numbers,” he said. “I think probably between the 2020-2021 school year, most kids in school under the age of 12 are going to get COVID-19.”
Board members voted 7-0 to maintain a mask mandate and safety guidelines.
RISD will take up the issue again at its next meeting on October 4.