Vineyard public schools will continue with surveillance testing

Upcoming field trips get the go-ahead from up-Island school officials.

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Island schools will utilize a pool testing program for this upcoming school year that is similar to last year's procedures. — Lucas Thors

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools will again conduct COVID surveillance testing during the upcoming school year, according to Superintendent Matt D’Andrea.

During Thursday’s meeting of the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) committee, D’Andrea said he has applied to and the district has been accepted into the Massachusetts Department of Education no-cost testing program.

The program will utilize weekly pool testing, similar to last year’s procedure, in which various groups of students are randomly chosen to submit saliva tests, and a laboratory analysis determines whether any of those students were infected with COVID. 

At that point, schools can isolate any students who test positive, and work to identify any close contacts.

D’Andrea said he met with an individual from the company that is overseeing the testing, and said some issues have been raised around how to find staffing who would be able to come to the Island to conduct testing on a continuous basis.

All students are expected to be learning in person, and D’Andrea said that with a mask policy and a surveillance testing program in place, he hopes Island schools will continue to have low numbers of positives in school buildings.

Although the Massachusetts Teachers Association recently voted overwhelmingly to support mandatory vaccines for students and staff, D’Andrea said he would like to wait until Gov. Baker’s office either backs a mandate or states why it hasn’t yet publicly supported one. He added that the Pfizer vaccine recently received full Food and Drug Administration approval, which will strengthen the case for mandatory vaccines. “We will keep the conversation going,” he said.

As the winter months approach, UIRSD committee chair Alex Salop said, people will be spending more time indoors, and it would behoove the committee to set a deadline for hearing from the state about mandatory vaccines, otherwise the group should make their own, independent decision. 

In other business, the committee approved out-of-state and overnight field trip requests for the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools, with the condition that the decision could be overturned if COVID numbers climb during the off-season.

Traditionally, West Tisbury plans its seventh-grade ski trip to Gunstock Mountain ski resort for Feb. 16 through 18, and although that’s a good length of time away, West Tisbury Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt stressed that if they don’t plan ahead, it will be difficult to change course in the future. “If we don’t have the plans in place, then we can’t veer from them if we need to, and we can’t put things together at the last minute,” Lowell-Bettencourt said.

D’Andrea said all the guidance the school system has received indicates that they can go ahead and have out-of-state and overnight field trips.

He said the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School recently approved a field trip with the condition that plans could be adjusted depending on the situation, and proposed a similar condition for this decision.

Committee member Robert Lionette said he is uncomfortable supporting any off-Island or overnight trips until Island schools decide on whether to have a mandatory vaccination policy. “I understand the need to do long-term planning, but I would not support a trip until we make that decision,” Lionette said, adding that “the guidance we received from our legal team suggested that the best-case scenario would be to follow our own boards of health.”

D’Andrea said the boards of health are of the same belief that they want to receive an explanation from the state as to whether they will mandate vaccines in schools, or an explanation as to why they aren’t.

Additionally, D’Andrea noted that the school system recently put out a survey to staff, and out of the 304 respondents so far, 97 percent have said they are fully vaccinated.

The survey only reflects the portion of school staff that submitted responses.

The ski trip was approved by the committee, with the condition that plans can be adjusted based on public health circumstances. 

Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens also requested permission to plan a ski trip to Sugarloaf Mountain in the first week of February. “I’m sure it will be dependent on the COVID situation,” Stevens said. 

She also requested permission for the upcoming Shenandoah trip the week of Sept. 13 through 17. 

The Shenandoah trip will include 14 Chilmark students, and will be run by the FUEL program as part of the school curriculum.

Stevens stressed that the Shenandoah has taken 25 trips this summer, and has had no incidences of COVID aboard the vessel. 

She also said every person from the FUEL faculty has to have a negative test within five days of boarding the ship, and they must be fully vaccinated. Additionally, every student who takes part in the trip needs to show a negative COVID test, and rapid testing will be available onboard if anyone starts to feel under the weather.

Committee members approved both trips conditionally.