Schools create testing proposal committee 

Stakeholders will look at funding, procurement, and implementation.

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School canceled extracurricular activities this week after students reportedly held parties over the weekend. - Lucas Thors

The All-Island School Committee decided to form a testing proposal committee composed of various stakeholder representatives at their Thursday meeting.

In late August, the committee voted to authorize community fundraising to help pay for the total cost to test students and teachers, which preliminary estimates at that time put at around $640,000.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said he has been investigating the various avenues for testing with school physician Dr. Jeff Zack, along with the rest of the health and safety team. “We have been exploring these possibilities. There are many challenges to putting this in place, but it is certainly something that can be done,” D’Andrea said.

He said he anticipates challenges surrounding federal guidance regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act, bargaining issues, test scheduling, hiring health staff to conduct lab work, and procurement of tests.

D’Andrea suggested forming the committee with lawyers, school committee members, parents, union members, and other stakeholders all at the table. 

“We really need to get everyone in the same room thinking and working through this together. I would like a little more time,” D’Andrea said.

The testing committee will report on its progress at each All-Island meeting.

Committee members Alex Salop and Amy Houghton volunteered to be on the testing proposal committee.

During Thursday’s meeting, school finance manager Mark Friedman also provided an updated projected cost estimate for COVID-19 expenses, and listed transportation costs as being the area that may be the most difficult to accommodate. 

“We have been working on a daily basis to compile precise lists of which students need bus transportation for the fall,” Friedman said. He added that the phased-in approach of school reopening makes the logistical and financial end of bus transportation that much more difficult. 

“Our busing that started today was just a fraction of where we need to be. We are continually reaching out to parents through the different schools to ensure we are aware of every student who needs transportation,” Friedman said.

He said if elementary schools have to double their transportation efforts for students due to maximum occupancy limits for buses, that could cost around $600,000, which would account for a large portion of school expenses. He said the school currently has a bid out for a vehicle cleaning company, so they will soon have firm estimates on those costs, although he gave a preliminary estimate of around $100,000 for regular sanitation throughout the year.

So far, Friedman said, the COVID-related expenses he expects to incur this year are covered by the overall amount of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding, and the school contingency funds that have already been appropriated. 

However, Friedman cited a “large margin of error” in those numbers, and said certain line items may have to be shifted around through the year.

Friedman said the schools are also looking at funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and could possibly receive relief for expenses related to PPE, vehicle cleaning, facilities cleaning, and other costs associated with COVID.

Friedman said that, although the All-Island School Committee has broached some of these issues, the local school boards will still have to decide how to arrange their budgets.

Tisbury School nurse and member of the health and safety committee Catherine Coogan said she feels that there is plenty of PPE in the school buildings to protect staff and students, along with universal signage in each school. 

School nurses showed examples of universal signage in every Island school to the committee, some reminding students to wash their hands, and others dictating flow through the hallways.

High school nurse and member of the health and safety team Linda Leonard said that she had a “pretty intense” week back at the high school, with many students coming to the building without a signed COVID checklist from their parents.

During orientation periods with students and staff, Island schools explained the screening process, and the contents of the checklists, which includes information on off-Island travel, any symptoms people may be experiencing, and whether folks have come in contact with someone with COVID. 

“Just yesterday I did assessments on around 350 kids. It took me a solid three hours to do that. Out of that 350 kids, there were two kids who weren’t allowed in the building,” Leonard said. “What is glaring to me is that we need to do a better job at sending out that COVID checklist before having people come into our building.”

Coogan said school health officials have created protocols for entry and exit, food service pickup, pickup and dropoff schedules for families, and much more — all based on state and federal health guidance. 

Coogan and other school nurses will continue to work with staff to provide education about the protocols, and will hold regular question and answer sessions to provide as much understanding as possible.

For the first day of school, Coogan said she thought things went well, although the process is going to need to be refined over time. “There really is a lot to take in for kids. This is going to be something we are going to have to try and get better at. I am certainly happy that this is a slow phasing in of students,” Coogan said. 

Leonard said only time will tell how nurse staff can handle the workload brought on by the possibility of regular testing and care for students who are symptomatic, and that “every day is unpredictable in the nurse’s office.” She said she thinks hiring additional nurse staff is necessary to be prepared for whatever comes.