Frontier Central High School in Hamburg this week became the latest to shut its doors after Covid-19 tests came back positive for three students.
St. Francis High School, Nichols School and Bemus Point in Chautauqua County also recently canceled in-person learning after students tested positive.
It's a glimpse of what might be in store for other schools, as a relatively quiet September morphed into an active mid-October in terms of coronavirus infections.
In the first six weeks of school, districts reported 50 positive cases in school buildings in Erie and Niagara counties, according to figures from the state. That number doubled in just over two weeks. Districts had reported 130 positive cases as of Monday. That includes 88 students, 31 teachers and 11 staff members.
But school leaders say cases in schools are coming from the community and there is very little transmission of the virus within schools.
And as the number of cases ticks up, school leaders are wary of being in a designated "yellow zone," an area close to a hot spot or with elevated Covid-19 numbers that would require schools to test students and staff.
"I don't see how it doesn't happen in our region unless people change their habits," Frontier Central Superintendent Richard Hughes said of getting that warning designation.
At St. Francis, 70 students are in quarantine, causing challenges in contact tracing as well as educating them and their classmates, according to Principal Thomas Braunscheidel. The school closed Friday, and students will be learning remotely for the next two weeks, he said.
"Turns out they apparently contracted from an off-campus event, related to a hockey team – not one of our hockey teams," he said of the students who tested positive. None had symptoms as of Friday, he said.
Frontier Central and Starpoint Central are the districts with the highest number of cases on-site in Erie and Niagara counties.
Hughes on Friday was contemplating closing Frontier High School for two weeks, depending on the results of several more tests. Then three more people tested positive. Frontier has seen 15 cases in schools since classes started in September, including nine in the last week. They include five teachers at the high school, prompting Hughes to close the building and have students learn remotely for at least two weeks.
"What we're seeing is gatherings outside schools," Hughes said. "We haven't seen any direct transmission in schools."
“That’s an important point to make to people in terms of sending their children to school,” said Sean Croft, superintendent in Starpoint. “There has been no transmission occurring, to the best of our knowledge, in schools."
In Starpoint, positive cases have been coming in at a “steady pace” of about one to two a week, Croft said. As of Monday, there had been 13 positive cases since school began.
“In each of these cases you trace it back to a husband was positive and passed it along to a staff member. Or a mom was positive and passed it along to their child who then came to school,” Croft said last week. “But nothing in terms of five kids from a class all came down with it.”
As of Monday, the Orchard Park Central School District had reported nine on-site cases since the start of the school year; the Williamsville Central School District, eight; and the Niagara Falls City School District, seven. The Amherst, East Aurora, Ken-Ton, Lackawanna, Lockport and North Tonawanda school districts each had reported six cases.
Nichols closed its upper school Oct. 26 and moved to remote learning for at least two weeks after a third positive case. Meanwhile, Bemus Point Elementary School in Chautauqua County also closed for two weeks because a number of teachers are in quarantine, creating a staffing problem.
The rise in school numbers corresponds with the uptick in positive cases the region has been experiencing in recent weeks, said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Cases in the region bottomed out in early August, then slowly doubled over the next month and a half, he said. The region has been treading water the last several weeks, but saw a couple days of "disturbing" increases this past week, Russo said.
"If we have an increased number of cases in the community, I think that's going to be reflected in an increased number of cases in school and both could be potentially feeding each other because we're so integrated. We're tied at the hip," Russo said.
What's driving the region's increased numbers are the private, medium-sized gatherings at homes, Russo said. He agreed that, as a general rule, transmission isn’t occurring in those venues that have a good public health plan in place.
“It’s going to vary from school to school and it’s all about the execution, even if you have a great plan,” Russo said.
But it’s very difficult to track transmission, because the more sophisticated testing isn’t usually done in most of these situations, he said.
“Unless it’s a huge cluster in one place, it may be difficult to sort out,” Russo said. “Was transmission in the school? Did they get it in their household or did they get it after school? Where did it come from?”
Several communities around the state have been designated as yellow zones, with increasing Covid-19 cases. In those areas, schools can remain open, but every week they must test 20% of their students and staff who are engaging in in-person instruction.
"I think we’re at a tipping point," Hughes said. "The last thing we want to do is cause transmissions to occur in our buildings."
Superintendents have been told that the state will supply the tests, but schools must administer them.
David O’Rourke, superintendent for Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, said superintendents right now are having preliminary discussions on how it might work if districts fall into a yellow zone – a precautionary designation, unlike the more restrictive red and orange zones.
It has created “a lot of questions that schools have to unravel,” he said.
“It is a big question mark if you’re deemed a yellow zone,” said Croft, of Starpoint. “That’s a department of health-led operation and, to be honest, I don’t know if they even have the tests to comply with that. So, it’s a great idea but can it actually be implemented? I don’t know.”