Editorial: Ringing the alarm on COVID-19 cases

The challenges local school districts face this year to implement hybrid models that mix in-person and remote learning to limit the spread of COVID-19 have been undoubtedly stressful. Each school building is a community unto itself, with hundreds of people coming and going each day.

It was inevitable that some students and staff in every district would eventually test positive for the virus. And initial data on school outbreaks has been largely reassuring. The World Health Organization reports that, so far, studies have shown that most COVID-19 infections in children were acquired at home. Testing and contact tracing have so far limited any massive outbreaks locally and, according to the WHO, studies have also shown that children under 10 years old are less susceptible and less infectious than older children. 

Schools have properly taken steps to prioritize in-person learning at elementary schools ahead of secondary schools, where transmission is more likely among teenagers. But the focus on COVID-19 transmission centers so much on the students, that it can be easy to overlook the staff in the building that make the entire operation run. Now, in the Riverhead Central School District, the number of cases among staff members has triggered alarm bells.

With 15 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, Riverhead — along with Connetquot — has reported more cases among teachers and staff than any other districts in Suffolk County. Employee cases in Riverhead account for 75% of the total, the highest percentage among districts with at least one student case, as we report this week. Only 12 of Suffolk’s 69 school districts have more cases among staff than students.

Riverhead’s interim superintendent Christine Tona has been prompt in notifying the community of positive cases, quarantines and school closures. In a recent letter, she even apologized for the rising number of robocalls that seem to be made daily.

Still, the district should provide more answers as to why the spread among its staff has been greater than in so many other districts. A single teacher testing positive can require a school building to close down if a significant number of other school personnel must quarantine as a result.

Ms. Tona’s most recent letter said that the Suffolk County Department of Health “has indicated that through contact tracing, the source of almost all of these positive cases has been determined to be outside of our schools.”

It’s imperative that staff members take extra precautions to avoid exposure, for their own health and for the sake of the school district.

We saw earlier this year how positive cases among transportation employees left the district unable to get students to and from schools. We still don’t know how that spread occurred and whether proper protocols were followed among those employees to limit exposure among each other.

On Friday, the school district partnered with the county health department to begin a testing program at the district’s schools as a way to gain more data on the escalating rates in Riverhead Town. The district deserves credit for taking on such an initiative that sets a goal of giving rapid tests — with 15 minute results — to about 20% of the school population.

While remote learning may be a convenient alternative that modern technology allows, it’s proven not to be an effective long-term replacement for the classroom learning environment students are accustomed to. It’s imperative that schools maintain in-person instruction as much as is safely possible, and doing that requires commitment not only from students, but staff as well.