The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 11, 2021 1:00 am

Outside school called riskier for kids than class

County health chief urges not lowering guard against virus

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Months of COVID-19 data show social gatherings and extracurricular activities are still more likely to spread the coronavirus among children than the school day, Allen County's top doctor said.

That hasn't stopped Travis Striggle from letting his third and fifth grade daughters lead a normal life during the pandemic, and he's not alone.

He invited Northwest Allen County Schools leaders to visit his street, whose residents include 10 children who attend Oak View Elementary School and two others who attend a district secondary school, he said.

“When all the kids get off the bus, they take off their masks, and they play in the cul-de-sac like normal kids,” Striggle said at the March 29 school board meeting. “And the crazy thing is, us parents have been allowing this to happen since last March.”

Striggle was among dozens of people who called on district leaders to drop the mask requirement, despite Gov. Eric Holcomb mandating masks for K-12 schools through the academic year.

Dr. Matthew Sutter, the county health commissioner, reiterated in emailed statements last week that precautionary measures – including mask-wearing, social distancing, frequent handwashing and avoiding large crowds – slow the spread of COVID-19.

“If people choose to let their guard down, we could still see ongoing transmission of this deadly virus,” Sutter said. “And while children are not likely to die from COVID-19, we know they can spread it – particularly in their household, which may include individuals who are more at-risk for hospitalization and death.”

NACS Superintendent Chris Himsel credited mask-wearing and other mitigation strategies for having fewer than 10 district cases linked to in-school transmission despite having more than 400 student and employee infections.

Much of the virus spread traced among school-age children seems to occur in extracurricular activities and social gatherings outside of school, Sutter said.

“Even when we were reporting our largest case counts at the height of the winter COVID-19 surge, we were still able to effectively contact-trace within schools,” Sutter said. “What we found was remarkable little transmission in schools when people were masking and following precautionary guidelines in the buildings as required.”

The data

At 2.5%, NACS leads Allen County school districts in student COVID-19 rates, according to the April 5 school virus dashboard update.

Rates for other districts are about 2% at East Allen County Schools, 1.5% at Southwest Allen County Schools and 1.2% to 1.5% at Fort Wayne Community Schools.

A more specific rate for FWCS cannot be calculated with publicly available information because student case totals are suppressed for 24 schools that have five or fewer cases. The district has about 50 schools.

School enrollments used in the rate calculation are according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Within NACS, Carroll High School tops student cases in both quantity, 99, and as a percentage of school enrollment, 4%.

Eight private schools have higher rates, including Bishop Dwenger High School, 7.2%, and Concordia Lutheran High School, 7.1%.

Of the FWCS schools whose exact student COVID-19 rates can be calculated, Whitney Young Early Childhood Center tops the list at 3% followed by Memorial Park Middle School at 2.7%.

FWCS has experienced few cases – probably no more than five – of student-to-student classroom spread, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said last week.

“When we see the virus spreading, it can usually be traced back to some event where kids weren't wearing masks,” she said.

Examples include athletic events and a social gathering involving a bonfire and sleepover, she added.

FWCS leaders hope the precautionary measures taught and practiced in school carry over to students' hours spent away from school, especially middle and high school students, who report to physical classrooms part time under the blended schedule, Stockman said.

Eased restrictions

Allen County students are scheduled to return Monday from spring break, during which the statewide mask mandate was replaced with a mask advisory for the general public.

The shift doesn't negate the concern health officials have about spread in the community, said Sutter, the county health commissioner.

Last week, Allen County was yellow on the state's color-coded map gauging the coronavirus' spread. The county achieved blue status for a week in March. Blue and yellow indicate the lowest levels of spread, with blue representing the lowest.

More than 38,500 Allen County residents have tested positive for the virus, and deaths are approaching 700.

“Our community is in a much better place now with regards to case numbers and deaths than this past fall and winter, given the rate of vaccination,” Sutter said. “But the pandemic is still not over. If we relax behaviors and allow this virus to spread uncontrolled, people can still be hospitalized and die.”

FWCS is concerned about the increased opportunities students have to contract COVID-19 under the loosened restrictions, Stockman said. She noted that's a reason the district partnered with Meijer to offer the Pfizer vaccine to students along with staff in clinics beginning Tuesday.

Almost 700 students submitted consent forms before spring break, Stockman said. The district estimated it has 5,000 eligible students.

The expansion of vaccine eligibility to ages 16 and older helped FWCS overcome trepidation about holding prom, Stockman said. Attendees – seniors and their dates – will have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated by the May 15 dance.

“That eases minds quite a bit,” Stockman said.

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