The school system has posted around 100 notices since schools reopened for in-person learning in February, bringing back about 20 percent of the school system’s population. Each posting means that at least one classroom — up to 12 people — has to switch to remote learning and quarantine for two weeks.
The notices can be concerning, but city officials say they are more reflective of students bringing the virus into schools rather than the virus spreading in schools. School system officials say that when multiple people in the school test positive they are usually siblings in different classrooms at the school.
They also said they are not aware of any instance in which a classroom was sent home to quarantine and then one of those students or a close contact of a student tested positive, suggesting that the infected student did not spread the virus in school.
Though that promising data point is hard to prove since it relies on families self-reporting any positive cases during quarantine, school system officials say they believe their efforts to stop the spread of the virus in schools are working. A charter school had one positive case after a cohort was quarantined, and private schools had five instances, according to data provided by the city.
“We are confident that our mitigation strategies are working,” said Elizabeth Bartolomeo, spokeswoman for the school system.
Unlike some other jurisdictions, the city does not have a tracker that shows when and how many cases are detected at each school. And looking at the city’s youth infection rates doesn’t say much about schools since most students are still learning virtually and many of the ones who do attend in-person classes are still virtual most days.
This week, the city began posting data showing schools with the highest number of cases. The Friendship network’s Armstrong campus in Northwest Washington had 19, all among staff. Seven of the nine schools with the highest number of cases are private schools.
According to city data, the number of youth infections spiked in January after the holidays and before most public schools started offering substantial in-person learning. The number of infections are currently far higher than they were last summer, though that could be because coronavirus tests for children are now more accessible.
City data show that just 224 of the 4400 cases in children 18 and younger between Aug. 1 and March 25 have been connected to schools, according to Ryan Stahlin, a data scientist who started an independent website tracking the city’s covid cases. (School numbers rely on private, charter and the school system reporting positive cases to D.C. Health.)
A public information request for more information on school by school cases was turned down.
“To me, it’s seems pretty clear that there is significant community spread not related to schools in that age group,” Stahlin said.
Based on the information that is available and data city leaders have provided there is no indication that there has been substantial spread in school.
The city has enacted cohorting and quarantine measures in schools, some of which are more conservative than CDC guidance. For example, the public school system does not allow middle and high school students to switch classes and switch cohorts even though national guidance — and more recently amended local guidance — allow for it.
The city has followed a 6-foot social distancing rule in schools, but will soon switch to 3-feet following revised CDC guidance. Currently anyone in a cohort with a positive case must quarantine for 14-days, but the school system will shorten that to 10-days later this month.
Numerous studies have attempted to assess the risk of reopening schools in the pandemic. A recent CDC study found that schools could safely reopen with protocols in…