After weeks of exhaustive discussion surrounding a testing program for students and staff, Island schools are seeking the expertise of health specialists before launching the undertaking.
At an All-Island School Committee (AISC) meeting Thursday, school officials decided they would halt in solidifying a testing program and seek guidance from infectious disease specialists, and other communities that are further along in the testing and re-entry process.
In late September, Island schools established a testing proposal committee consisting of parents, school staff and administration, health officials, and two members of the AlSC.
That group was charged with working with the school health and safety committee to determine methods of funding, test procurement, and implementation. But with a lack of specialized knowledge surrounding infectious diseases and epidemiology guiding the discussion, officials are looking to major health institutions for support.
“The testing task force, along with families, staff, and the community, feel that testing needs to be a part of our safe re-entry into schools,” committee member Amy Houghton said. She noted that new evidence and research surrounding testing is constantly emerging at the state level, and school and health officials on the task force have been continually responding to those changes.
“With the constant flow of new information, and our lack of infectious disease expertise on the Island, the task force has grown increasingly concerned that the testing program we intended to implement wasn’t the most effective to meet our needs,” Houghton said.
She added that school officials have been corresponding with Massachusetts General Hospital and Tufts University to enlist their guidance in both the planning and implementation of a testing program.
Island school officials have also connected with Wellesley Public Schools, which Houghton said has issued a request for proposals involving a testing task force and exhaustive parameters around testing. She suggested the Island could use the plan in place at Wellesley schools as a guide for how Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVYPS) sets up its system.
According to Houghton, MVYPS will also work with Martha’s Vineyard Bank to conduct a broad fundraising campaign for the initiative, to cover any unforeseen expenses.
“If we are going to do the kind of testing that has been proposed, it is likely that, based on new guidance, it could cost us more money than anticipated,” she said.
Committee member Alex Salop said it is clear to him that “some very smart people are struggling over this information,” and school officials need the help of experts in specific fields before embarking on such a financial endeavor.
Salop, along with several other committee members, thanked Dr. Jeff Zack — the school physician who initially proposed a testing program, and aligned MVYPS with a testing apparatus that could conduct rapid testing.
“[Zack] has done a lot of work, and has created a framework for us to work from to create a plan,” Salop said.
Committee member Kimberly Kirk said she is excited to hear that schools are reaching out to leading public health entities, and highlighted the importance of understanding what comprehensive testing would entail for Vineyard schools. “What does it do for our staff and students, and what doesn’t it do?” she said.
Committee chair Robert Lionette said it seems necessary for Superintendent Matt D’Andrea to “reconfigure the very nature” of the testing task force, and repopulate it to move in the direction of specialized knowledge.
Salop agreed with Kirk that there are still a number of questions that need answering before any funds are allocated or decisions are put in place.
“I think there are some people who think testing is a panacea, and I certainly don’t think it is that,” he said. He also identified the need for a localized infection metric that determines when students are allowed in school, and when they must be educated remotely.
D’Andrea said he believes Island schools are “heading in the right direction,” and that although testing will not be the “be-all and end-all,” it will serve as a necessary tool to get students and staff back in the building.
“Hopefully we can get this in place soon,” he said.
Learning cafes operating
In other school business, students who are identified as having higher needs and who would benefit greatly from receiving in-person instruction are in schools and various satellite learning locations around the Island. Younger students are also being phased back into school buildings, based on the timeline established in the reopening plan.
D’Andrea said there will be what the school calls “learning cafes” at the Chilmark Community Center, at the West Tisbury School in the gym, at the high school, at the YMCA, and at the Boys & Girls Club. These cafes include those students with Individualized Education Programs, 504 plans, and any other students that need additional support. Younger students who have already been phased into the hybrid model are also using the cafes. Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith said the YMCA currently has 10 students, primarily in grades 5 through 8, in learning pods, with the option of expanding to 26. With newly acquired licensing, Smith said, the YMCA can expand up to 60 students.
At the Boys & Girls Club, Smith said they will have a program that runs from 8 am to 2 pm, and then that same group of children would continue in an afterschool program till 6 pm. The YMCA program also extends up to 4 pm, in order to support working families, Smith said.
Nina Lombardi, director of operations for the YMCA, said it will also be offering a program on Fridays for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade, where they can learn virtually. That program is anticipated to be able to accommodate up to 44 students.
Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Principal Sara Dingledy said there are currently learning cafes with students learning remotely in the cafeteria, the gym, and in outdoor tents.
D’Andrea said the district anticipates they will eventually be able to provide bus transportation for students to and from the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club, as they have in the past for afterschool programs.
Committee member Kate DeVane voiced her concerns around learning pods that include students from a number of different schools, and said commingling students in this way “defeats the purpose of having learning pods from each school.”