Dear Smithfield Staff and Families,
This 18th edition of the weekly Return to School report includes an update on COVID cases affecting our schools, updates on air quality, clarifications about isolation and quarantine periods, and general reminders.
Additional COVID Cases
Last week I provided an overview of RIDOH’s case investigation process. Unfortunately, this week we had four cases that required contact tracing and quarantines. All four cases are unrelated and no spread within the schools is suspected. Three of the cases involve students at SHS and the fourth is a staff member at McCabe Elementary School. Meanwhile, OCRS’s kindergarten class returned back to school with no quarantined students contracting the illness. Likewise, those quarantined at SHS from two earlier cases returned back to school healthy. Such facts provide evidence that good, hygienic practices are in place in our schools.
Sometimes it takes RIDOH investigators longer to develop a quarantine list than we would like. Students or staff who may eventually be placed in quarantine may come into school. Even when called during the school day, RIDOH recommends that they remain in school until the end of the day (though we have a practice of sending notified staff and students home as soon as notification occurs). Remember that a quarantined individual, unless they show symptoms or have tested positive, does not pose a threat to others initially but may contract the illness over the 14-day quarantine period.
Updates on Air Quality
Although the aerosols released through breathing have less virus in them than larger droplets caused by sneezing and coughing and one would need to inhale large quantities of them to get sick, frequent air exchange further dilutes the virus, if present, in the room. Aerosols can accumulate over time in indoor spaces if no effort is made to properly ventilate or filter the air. We have taken a methodical approach to evaluating and enhancing air handling systems to increase the air exchange in all indoor spaces.
This summer, work was done on rooftop units, filters were replaced on room univents, and we engaged Garcia, Galuska, Desousa, Inc., consulting engineers, to evaluate our HVAC systems and make recommendations for enhancements. The engineers found that with the exception of some classroom fan coil units that were replaced within the past 10 years, existing HVAC systems and controls in our schools have served past their life expectancy; however, these systems remain operable and are well-maintained.
Their recommendations are to install filters with MERV ratings that are the highest allowable by the equipment manufacturer, which has been done, in addition to operating the HVAC systems in occupied mode for longer periods. Additionally, increasing outdoor airflow by disabling demand control ventilation (keeping the dampers open) and by opening windows was also suggested and applied, though this potentially contributes to compromising thermal comfort. Where operable windows are utilized as a source of ventilation for a given space, fans are being used to promote a draft across rooms for increased ventilation effectiveness.
The specifications for supplemental HEPA filters was provided so that any filters purchased are sufficient, quiet, and energy efficient. In combination with HVAC systems that are running under optimal conditions, these filters improve overall air quality by removing allergens, dust, and, most importantly, aerosols containing viruses and bacteria. The plan for mitigating air quality and for purchasing HEPA filters was also shared with engineers from Arden Engineering Constructors, who the RIDOH has contracted to assist districts with facility issues. We have been waiting for a supply of backordered filters, which are due to be delivered this week. Another 220 are ordered and are expected within the next 10 days.
The district has also purchased CO2 monitors to monitor CO2 levels in classrooms as a means of determining if the combination of mitigating measures has the desired effect of exchanging room air four times each hour. These monitors must be calibrated in order to accurately measure CO2 levels.
Lengths of Isolation and Quarantine Periods
There has been some confusion about the lengths of isolation and quarantine periods. When an individual tests positive, they go into isolation. The isolation period is 10 days after symptom onset or, in an asymptomatic case, 10 days after testing. Close contacts are quarantined for 14 days after exposure to the individual who tested positive. If a family member tests positive the other family members must quarantine while the family member is infectious (10 days after symptom onset) and then for 14 days after the household member is no longer infectious. In total, the family members will be quarantined for approximately 24 days. The RIDOH provides instructions for those in isolation or quarantine.
Attestation Forms - After an illness, all staff and students are expected to submit an after-illness attestation form. These forms are available online through the RIDOH website (see link) or through our COVID webpage (see red link on the district website).
Dedicated Testing Centers - See this website - https://health.ri.gov/covid/testing/k-12/ for an overview of when to get a test, what happens on the day of the test, and the locations of the K-12 testing sites. To schedule a test, parents or staff can call: (844) 857 - 1814 - 7 Days a Week: 7:30 AM - 9:30 PM.
School Meals - Both breakfast and lunch are free to ALL students. Not many students are taking advantage of this benefit. Consider trying out a school lunch!
Over the past five weeks we saw a small but steady rise in new cases of COVID-19, from 6 per week to 10, 11, and 14 new cases of COVID-19 reported last week. This past week, the number of new cases in Smithfield dropped to 10 - a good sign. This corresponds to a daily rate of 1.4 new cases per ~22,000 residents, or 6.6 per 100,000. Since the numbers are going up around the state, we urge all members of our school community to take precautions.
Judy Paolucci, Superintendent