School forum highlights differing perspectives on reopening

Some parents are comfortable with in-person learning, others are not.

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In order to make informed decisions regarding school reopening, officials have hosted regular community forums to glean insight into elements like testing, contract tracing, and safety protocols in school buildings.

At a session Tuesday night, which about 100 people attended, Superintendent Matt D’Andrea answered dozens of questions from parents with very divergent opinions on how best to move ahead. Throughout the conversation, it was clear that some parents and community members wanted their kids to be back in school as soon as possible, while others were more keen on remote learning until the testing plan is fully implemented. 

One issue brought up by parents at the forum was transparency when a student is confirmed to have the coronavirus in a particular classroom. One parent said she believes all families of students who were in the same class as a student with coronavirus should be notified, but D’Andrea and nurse Catherine Coogan said there are Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws that are meant to protect privacy that partially tie the hands of school officials in this matter. Even so, D’Andrea said, he would consult with his team to determine if any additional information could be provided. 

Currently, a student and a family are only notified by health officials through contact tracing, if that student is considered to be a “close contact,” meaning they were within six feet of the infected person for 15 minutes or more. 

This past week, both the high school and grades 5 and 6 at the Oak Bluffs School had to suspend in-person learning due to the number of staff who needed to be in quarantine. 

When someone in a classroom or learning space tests positive for coronavirus, D’Andrea said, those teachers and students have to quarantine, creating staffing and attendance issues.

D’Andrea stressed repeatedly that he and his health and safety committee are “very confident” that transmission is not taking place within schools, and the reason for the quarantines largely had to do with the rates of coronavirus going up on the Island in general.

“I want to emphasize that we are not seeing any of the virus being transmitted in our schools. We have had individuals who have come to school and tested positive, but through contact tracing were able to determine that those cases were transmitted outside school,” D’Andrea said. “I can say with a high level of confidence that your children are safe in school.”

Along with much praise for school and health officials and the many hours they have spent planning, some parents wondered why in-person school needed to be closed and additional in-person learning postponed, even though D’Andrea said he is confident that kids are safe in school.

Because of the exponential spread of the virus on-Island, D’Andrea said, there was a “strong concern” that bringing more students back into the school at this time could potentially exacerbate that spread.

“We [school and health officials] felt it would be best to just take a pause and wait. Hopefully this spike will not last, and at that time we can bring students back,” D’Andrea said.

But with Thanksgiving and the holiday season coming up, and the cold and flu season already upon us, parents asked what the protocols would be like for back-to-school as more kids are scheduled to return.

D’Andrea said he has had extensive conversations around Thanksgiving, and how to bring kids back to school in the safest way possible.

He said it is essential for families and staff to be responsible in traveling, and if they travel out of state, they should follow the protocols outlined by Gov. Charlie Baker and quarantine.

“Our families and staff are very good about this. They know how important it is. I am comfortable bringing students back after Thanksgiving,” D’Andrea said.

Some folks on the forum posed the question of temporary remote learning, meaning that students would learn remotely until the spike is over, then return to in-person.

One parent asked whether they could take their kid out of in-person learning if there was another spike, and then bring them back into the building once the infection rates are lower.

Another parent wondered if a child is sick, if the student could stay home and receive remote learning then return to school after they are not experiencing symptoms.

But D’Andrea said if schools open the door to students and families making the choice about whether to go remote or in-person on any given day, “it could potentially create a lot of challenges for staff and for students.”

Going back and forth between the two learning models, according to D’Andrea, creates additional learning disruption for students, and disrupts teachers’ ability to effectively educate.

“I think it would be best that if your child is sick, they stay home and make up the work when they are able to come back, just as it has always been,” D’Andrea said.

Testing on the way

Along with the Mirimus asymptomatic pool testing that will run 600 random tests per testing cycle in each school district, nurses will be able to test students or staff who are symptomatic onsite, and get results in 15 minutes or less.

According to a letter sent out by D’Andrea Tuesday, Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVYPS) has been accepted into the Phase I Abbot BionaxNOW K-12 testing program, sponsored by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

The tests are self-contained packets that will be located in nurses’ offices in each school. D’Andrea wrote in his letter that he does not yet know how many tests the Island schools will receive.

Additionally, D’Andrea wrote that the schools plan to begin asymptomatic pool testing starting Jan. 4. “That is the soonest that Mirimus can take us on. We plan to overnight samples on Tuesdays on testing weeks, and receive results on the following Thursday,” he wrote. 

As far as logistics go, the letter states that students and staff will be asked to self-administer tests at home and deliver the sample to a central location on a designated day and time. The details of the plan are still being fleshed out, according to the letter.

The plan, according to D’Andrea’s letter, mirrors what is being done in other Massachusetts municipalities such as Wellesley, and Island schools are communicating with those districts to learn from their experiences with testing.

As far as mandatory staff testing, which required additional collective bargaining before a plan could be established, D’Andrea wrote that union leadership has been working with administrators to develop an agreement and written contract.