Schools make tough decisions amid COVID spike

With cases rising on-Island, schools must strike balance between quality of education and public safety.

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School is moving to fully remote learning this week. - Lucas Thors

Throughout the pandemic, Island schools have had to pivot and shift their educational approach and make decisions that will best serve students and families — those tough decisions aren’t going away.

As Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) became the final Island school district to approve funding for a testing plan that would see elementary schools testing pools of students and staff biweekly, with 600 tests per cycle, and the high school testing weekly, dozens of cases appeared in the Vineyard community in a very short time.

With the highest COVID rates the Island has seen, and health agents suggesting community spread is underway, schools seemed as if they would continue to welcome more students back into the building as part of their reopening plans anyway.

But on Nov. 5, the first confirmed case in the school system was reported, and a letter issued by superintendent Matt D’Andrea was sent to families asking them to comply with the boards of health and continue to follow mitigation protocols to prevent spread.

The following day, on Nov. 6, a letter from D’Andrea to families stated that there had been a confirmed COVID case at the Tisbury School. This letter also urged families to keep their kids at home if they are symptomatic, and to diligently fill out the COVID questionnaire before school each morning.

On Nov. 8, a second case was confirmed at the Tisbury School, according to a letter from D’Andrea to parents. The letter read that school officials “are confident that in both cases [at the Tisbury School] transmission has occurred outside of school.”

The next day, on Nov. 9, the Edgartown School community was notified by D’Andrea via a letter that there was a case confirmed within the school population, and a prior plan to bring more students back to school in a hybrid education model on Nov. 10 was postponed out of “an abundance of caution,” the letter reads.

Then, on Nov. 12, D’Andrea issued a letter announcing six additional cases of COVID reported from Island schools, including three confirmed cases at the MVRHS, two additional cases at the Edgartown School, and one additional case at the Tisbury School. 

As with prior letters, D’Andrea wrote in the announcement that school and health officials are “confident that in each of these cases, transmission has occurred outside of school.”

Despite the rise in cases within the school system, D’Andrea wrote that schools are “not a contributor” to the uptick. He wrote that he has received a number of inquiries about slowing down the return plan or returning to a fully remote model, but stressed that “none of the student or staff cases we have identified in the schools have been contracted in the school setting.”

In each of the letters, D’Andrea asked the Island community to take collective action in mitigating the spread of coronavirus outside school, so that the school environment can be safe for staff and students.

“Increased community transmission has a direct impact on our schools and our ability to keep them open…Please do your part in helping our community and schools stay healthy and open,” he wrote.

After that, D’Andrea wrote saying that all Island schools will postpone the start of any additional in-person instruction, due to the drastic rise in COVID cases both on-Island and in the school system.

“The heightened spread of on-Island positive COVID-19 tests has created great concern in our school community,” the letter states. “After careful consideration, and in consultation with our health and safety committee, all MVPS schools will postpone the start date of increased in-person instruction,” D’Andrea wrote. 

MVRHS principal Sara Dingledy then issued a letter stating that all in-person support for students at the high school would be suspended from Nov. 16 to Nov. 20.

“This means that no students will come into the building to work in the cafeteria or with teachers. Due to contact tracing, several staff members will need to be in quarantine, even those who receive a negative test result,” Dingledy wrote. “This necessary quarantining will result in significantly reduced supervision in our student support spaces, making it impossible to run our program as we have since September. 

As with all other Island schools, Dingledy wrote that the high school will not move into a wider in-person hybrid model on Nov. 30 as was previously planned, but will meet regularly with the health and safety committee to determine a date to bring more students back safely.

The Times spoke with some parents and teachers on-Island to see how they felt about the current situation, and whether they would feel comfortable with their child returning to in-person education.

President of the Edgartown School Parent-Teacher Association, Brooke Leahy, said that as a parent, she appreciates the hard work done by administrators and staff at Island schools. “It was definitely a roller coaster,” she added. “I feel like we are still riding that roller coaster.”

Leahy said her son has been receiving in-person education for over a month now, and she and her family were feeling good about the situation. “The kids were really happy to see their friends, and were just happy to be back in school,” Leahy said. 

But she did say the current spike on-Island is concerning, and that “it is becoming harder and harder for parents to make those calls” as to whether they should allow their kids back into in-person learning.

Leahy said she is putting her trust in the superintendent, school administration, and local health officials to make the tough decisions. 

She said all the plans created by school and health officials were well thought out, and if there had not been such a significant uptick, she is confident the schools would have reopened safely. 

But with the rise in COVID rates, Leahy said next steps need to be thought through carefully. She added that, once testing is implemented at Island schools, that will serve as a confidence boost for parents “that you are sending your child into as safe an environment as you can these days.”

Another parent, and longtime Oak Bluffs School teacher, Eve Heyman, said she is uncomfortable with more kids returning to school. Heyman has a foster daughter in 6th grade and another child in 8th grade.  

She stressed that the best way to educate students is a face-to-face, in-person experience, “but at what risk?” she asked.

With the current uptick, she said she feels “incredibly nervous” with the idea of additional in-person learning. Although she credited Oak Bluffs principal Megan Farrell and school nurse Lana Schaefer for their diligence and dedication toward protecting everyone who enters the building, Heyman said schools need to take into consideration the stresses that additional in-person learning would put on teachers, cafeteria workers, custodial staff, and the entire school community.

“I have been a teacher for 26 years and this is the hardest I have ever worked, it is grueling every single day,” Heyman said. Heyman has an underlying health condition that requires her to teach from home, which she said comes with its own trials. But she is concerned for staff inside the building as well.

“My colleagues that are in-person are not just having to deliver the curriculum, but also serve as the person that is watching out for health and safety — it’s like doing two jobs at once,” she said.