Appo schools return to virtual-only learning Dec. 7 with rise of COVID cases statewide

Amanda Parrish
Middletown Transcript

Hours after Gov. John Carney issued the state’s most recent COVID-19 advisory, the Appoquinimink Board of Education met for an emergency meeting Dec. 3 to decide if classes would return to virtual learning.

In a 3-2 vote, the district decided to resume virtual classes only beginning Dec. 7. The end date will be determined at the regularly scheduled board meeting Tuesday. 

Michelle Wall, Charlisa Edelin and Norm Abrams voted for return to virtual-only learning. Richard Forsten and board member Kelly Wright dissented.

During the meeting, Superintendent Matt Burrows recommended going virtual from Dec. 7 to Jan. 11, noting the district has faced staffing challenges where they don’t have enough people to cover classes when multiple teachers are out.

"We do not feel that it’s safe or wise to operate in hybrid," Burrows said.

Burrows said the MOT area is standing out as a “hotbed for COVID,” with 95 students and 38 staff members testing positive since hybrid learning began. Forty-five students and 17 staff members are still currently infected. He said the numbers are manageable, but the quarantines have been hurting the district’s ability to operate: 154 staff members and 563 students have had to quarantine.

Desks are spaced 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing among students at Spring Meadow Childhood Center Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.

During the Nov. 10 board meeting, the schools had about 8,000 students and 1,200 staff members in the buildings., who are all required to wear masks. As of Dec. 3, Burrows said not all 1,200 staff members and about 6,500 students come to school in person.

He said they have “maxed out” on the substitutes who are willing to come into the buildings.

At a board meeting Nov. 10, Burrows announced the district had 30 positive COVID-19 cases among students and nine among staff since hybrid learning began Oct. 19. 

Forsten, who voted to keep classes in the hybrid model, was concerned about making a decision that would only give staff and families three days to prepare for virtual-only learning. 

“I am very confused and disappointed, I don’t think the advisory really helps us,” he said.

Carney recommended schools stop in-person learning from Dec. 14 to Jan. 8, but to return to hybrid learning on Jan. 11. He said school districts are allowed to remain hybrid if they choose to do so.

Wright, who also voted for classes to remain hybrid, wanted to hold off on making a decision until at least Tuesday's board meeting to learn more about the operational challenges facing the district and if there are anyways to work around them.

“I will tell you, for younger children, learning from home is very difficult, and I am looking for all opportunities for them to safely stay in school. Based on the numbers and the fact that there is really no spread in our schools, schools seem to be a pretty safe place,” she said. 

Board member Charlisa Edelin said whether or not the governor follows it, the Appo school district should follow the gating criteria set forth by the state.

The share of COVID-19 tests that are positive in Delaware hit a seven-day average of 8% on Thursday, which put 2 out of 3 of the state’s school reopening criteria into the red.

The seven-day average of daily positive cases reached a pandemic-high of 555.7. Hospitalizations in the state continue to rise, concerning Carney and health officials. As of Wednesday evening, 277 people were hospitalized due to complications from COVID-19.

Since the summer, the state has been relying on three data points to make decisions about whether schools should be open during the pandemic: the rate of new cases, percent of tests that are positive, and average daily hospitalizations. Throughout the school year, the numbers have remained in the yellow category, which allows for hybrid learning.

"The data here in Delaware and our lived experience with the many schools that have successfully reopened, combined with what we’ve seen across the country and in Europe, indicates that the risk of transmission in school when social distancing protocols are followed is not significant," Carney wrote in a message posted to the state's website. "The harm of keeping students out of school, as we all know, is. 

"Given those facts, there is not really a public health reason to close schools right now. And I believe strongly that students learn better in person.”

News Journal reporters Jeff Neiburg and Natalia Alamdari contributed to this report.