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The state changed its metrics for school reopening. Here’s what that means for students and teachers.

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

If the state were still following its original metrics for school reopening, schools would be completely remote this week. 

But a few weeks ago, the state changed its criteria guiding whether schools could have students in buildings. 

The change comes as COVID-19 cases reach new highs in Delaware. 

Public health officials say it offers a more accurate look at what community spread looks like in Delaware. 

Before, school reopening was guided by three main criteria: average daily hospitalizations, new cases, and the percentage of people testing positive. The combination of those numbers determined whether schools could be fully in-person, hybrid, or need to go fully remote. 

In late October, the state changed how it looks at positive cases when it comes to schools. Instead of following the percentage of people testing positive, the state is using the percentage of tests that are positive. 

So, what’s the difference between these two measurements? 

The percentage of people testing positive means that one result is reported for each individual who is tested, even if they’ve been tested multiple times. This often reflects higher positivity rates, the Division of Public Health said. So far, 369,131 individuals have been tested in Delaware, Gov. John Carney said at a press briefing on Tuesday. 

The percentage of tests that are positive instead looks at every test that’s conducted. So if a person were to get tested four times, all four of those tests would contribute to that data. Because of that, this number includes a higher number of tests and lower positivity rates. In Delaware, 599,043 tests have been conducted, Carney said Tuesday. 

“We all believe it was absolutely the right thing to do to move to the test-based approach,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health. “This far into the pandemic, when many people are getting tested multiple times, the person-based measure isn’t a great indicator of true community spread.” 

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health gives an update on the state's coronavirus response in Wilmington on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 at the Carvel State Building.

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Rather, person-based statistics are likely to be misleading, public health officials said. 

This week, the percentage of people testing positive in Delaware totals 12.7%. That number, paired with a new cases rate of 135.9, would have originally put Delaware schools in the red zone, meaning schools would be operating remotely. 

But the change means that the state is instead looking at 4.3% for the percentage of positive tests, keeping schools in the hybrid model. 

Most states also use the test-based approach, Rattay said, making it easier to compare Delaware’s numbers to other jurisdictions. The Centers for Disease Control also recommends that metric compared to person-based numbers. 

The CDC suggests that anywhere from 1% to 10% would be considered moderate spread. Delaware school reopening criteria narrowed that window to 1% to 8%. 

“We felt that wasn’t as true of a reflection of community spread, and that we needed to be more conservative than what the CDC and the White House are recommending,” Rattay said Tuesday. 

Like most of the country, COVID-19 cases in Delaware are surging to levels unseen since mid-May. On Sunday, state health officials reported 318 new cases, the most in a single day since May 15. Monday, the state reported another 313 cases. 

Delaware has reported seven deaths over the past week, and 127 people are hospitalized, the most since June 4.

A student at St. Anne's Episcopal School has their temperature taken upon arrival Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Middletown.

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Public health officials connect the recent spread of coronavirus to social gatherings. The Division of Public Health has seen little spread within schools, Rattay said. 

“The spread is really occurring external to our schools, it’s happening outside the school building,” she said. 

The few instances of in-school spread have been connected to lack of social distancing and not using face coverings, primarily when eating, she said. Cases have been connected to slumber parties, carpooling without masks, and other socializing outside of school. 

One travel baseball team played a game out of state, resulting in 10 positive cases. 

A staff member held a Halloween party of 20 people, Rattay said, leading to 11 positive cases across four schools. 

“We don’t want to shut schools down, and we haven’t really seen spread within schools,” she said Monday. 

As of Nov. 6, the cumulative number of students and staff in schools who tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 1 was 291. That breaks down to 118 students and staff in private schools, and 173 students and staff in public schools. 

Just this week, two Red Clay elementaries had to close temporarily after a positive test required key staff members to quarantine. 

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Woodbridge High School closed for two weeks after several people tested positive in October. And a two-day precautionary closure at Sussex Technical High School turned into an additional week of remote learning after a staff member and student tested positive. 

Students listen to the morning announcements on a zoom call in class on the first day of school Tuesday, September 8, 2020, at Seaford Central Elementary School.

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In neighboring Maryland, some districts have put a hold on switching to hybrid learning, as cases continue to surge. Some schools that had made the switch have decided to temporarily revert to virtual learning. 

The School District of Philadelphia announced in late October that schools would continue to remain fully virtual, delaying plans to transition to hybrid learning later this month. 

In Delaware, most schools have transitioned to some form of hybrid learning. And as the state considers possible business and gathering restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19, Carney hopes to keep as many kids in schools as is safe and possible. 

“I think they should continue with their plans to move children back to in-person instruction in the hybrid way,” Carney said Tuesday. “We’ll keep our focus on it in identifying particular geographic areas where there’s outbreaks.”

Contact Natalia Alamdari at nalamdari@delawareonline.com.