The School Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 13, heard a lengthy COVID update from Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak, reflecting 41 positive tests among students, seven staff members and two coaches since school resumed after the holiday break.
There have been 35 staff members and 163 students — including both varsity and JV girl’s basketball teams, the girls’ varsity hockey team, the Hanson’s grade seven and eight girls’ travel basketball team and eighth-grade boys’ travel basketball teams — under quarantine.
Four district special education classrooms have also had to be quarantined.
“We are not seeing positive transmission, necessarily, within our student body,” Szymaniak said. “We have occasional cases of kids being exposed and then with close contacts, even through an extracurricular activity [or] an athletic activity, but not necessarily in our classrooms.”
The subseparate special ed classes were the exception. Szymaniak said the high school had been placed on full remote this month because of a shortage of substitutes to cover for teachers who were ill, quarantined, for other medical appointments or on long-term leave.
Sarah Wall, a Whitman resident and mother of 9-year-old twin boys and 7-year-old twin girls who attend Conley School and was hired during the past school year as a substitute teacher, spoke to the committee during the public forum about the lack of substitutes. She had been an elementary-grade teacher in Newton schools for several years.
Wall said she believes that low wages for substitutes is at the root of why there is a shortage. As she spoke, she was receiving a call to sub, she told the committee, noting that higher wages would lead to a larger more qualified pool of substitutes.
Szymaniak said the district’s goal has been to avoid full remote days as much as possible since August.
Students have been voicing concerns about the technical difficulties and distractions of hybrid learning.
“Coming from a student point of view, hybrid learning is very difficult,” student representative Anna Flynn told the Committee. “It is challenging to stay focused and understand material when there is so many distractions.”
Among the distractions students face are WiFi cut-outs, family members also at home, cell phones and electronic devices. She said her peers have told her that fully remote days are less stressful because everyone is online and teachers are focused on everyone at once in front of them on the computer screen.
“The longer lunch on all-remote days helps students stay focused when they go back to academic classes,” she said. “It has been widely known throughout the student body [has given] negative feedback on the topic of going back to school [on a hybrid schedule Jan. 14] many feel we should be fully remote for a longer period of time due to the concerns about the COVID-19 virus.”
Athletic Director Bob Rodgers admitted that the sports program has faced its struggles during the winter season.
“We’ve advocated that the Patriot League allow our teams to practice, but not play games, and move our games to the Feb. 22 Fall II season,” Rodgers said. He had hopes it could be done at least for the girls because there would be no other sports conflict, and argued the abrupt cancellation of games was upsetting to students.
“I’m a big advocate of the Patriot League bubble,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that we’ll play outside the bubble, however there are some teams in our league — because there are so many teams shut down.”
W-H shuts a team down if even one positive case is found and other team members are asked to get tested, Rodgers said, but other schools have other protocols.
Szymaniak said school officials have also been learning about the pool testing being advocated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). His concerns include the number of people needed to administer the program and he is not certain if W-H will use it. Another concern is whether the communities are large enough to make pool testing an accurate tool.
Szymaniak is also concerned with another message sent by pool tests.
“What we don’t want to do is say, ‘There might be a test for you to come to school and test — we have a pool test — go to school if you have symptoms, and they’ll take care of you,’” he said. “Our parents have been doing an awesome job of contacting the school [when their children have symptoms] and it’s worked out relatively well.”
Staffing has been the main issue when asymptomatic students or staff receive positive tests following close contact with people outside school.
Like Whitman, which is buying rapid tests for staff only at this point, through the fire department for town employees, Szymaniak is looking into costs.
“That’s probably what we are going to do,” he said.
Pool tests are intended for both students and staff, which raises a question about manpower for conducting them.
If a person in the pool tests positive, a backup antigen test would be conducted, but if an additional test is needed due to no positive tests in an antigen follow-up to a positive result in a pool test, Szymaniak is not certain who would have to foot that bill.
Committee member Hillary Kniffen said cost considerations are not compatible with equal access issues surrounding public education.
“Testing is important and it shouldn’t be [that if] you can pay for it, you can get it,” she said.
Szymaniak suggested the Committee send a letter to state officials expressing that concern.
Member Dan Cullity asked about the vaccination plan, but Szymaniak said the state has provided no guidance about teachers yet, but unofficially “on the street” he has heard it may be February or March. It appears, however, that school nurses have been moved up into the first responder category.
Szymaniak said the district is working on the plan for the eventual return to school this academic year if it is safe as well as the plan for returning to school in September.
“April 1 is not a date that is set in stone,” he said. “There’s a lot of what-ifs in there, a lot could change.”