Before the School Committee’s scheduled discussion of Circuit Breaker funding on Jan. 5, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak updated the committee on COVID-19.
“I think your words were best when I was going to provide the overview – ‘It’s bad,’” he said to School Committee Chairman Christopher Howard. “COVID’s pretty bad right now.”
Of the high school’s 1,095 students, 114 were out on Jan. 4 and 201 were out on Jan. 5. Of Whitman Middle School’s 514 students, 87 were out on Jan. 4 and 87 were out on Jan. 5. Preschool saw 7 of its 99 students absent on Jan. 4 and 17 out on Jan. 5 Conley School had 94 of 493 students absent on Jan. 4 and 82 out on Jan.5. Duval School, which teaches 426 students, 61 were absent on Jan.4 and 63 on Jan. 5.
In Hanson, of the middle school’s 459 students, there were 77 students out on Jan. 4 and 70 out on Jan. 5, and at Indian Head, where 498 students attend, there were 54 absences on Jan. 4 and 53 on Jan. 5.
“Now [the absences] could be for a variety of reasons – COVID related, it could be illness, parents keeping their kids home – some people could be on vacation,” he said.
Szymaniak said there are some students stuck overseas, where they were traveling, when they tested positive for COVID.
Of the district’s 540 active staff members, 93 were out on Monday and 107 on Tuesday and 108 on Wednesday. That figure does not include bus coaches, after school staff or bus drivers.
“I had 40 teachers out today, 28 looked like they were from COVID,” Szymaniak said. “That could be because of close contact or quarantining or they tested positive.”
Szymaniak said he had a phone meeting with Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley earlier in the day during which KN95 masks were urged.
“We received 15,000 masks for our teachers,” he said. “From the commissioner’s meeting today, our masks were not the masks that were MIT certified [for medical use].”
The MIT-certified masks went somewhere else in the state, and a story in The Boston Globe, meanwhile, has raised questions about the efficacy of the MIT KN95 masks and the other ones, Szymaniak said.
“We still offered the masks to our teachers – they’re in the principals’ offices if they choose to take them,” he said.
Teachers were also supposed to be tested as of the return from holiday break, and the district was supposed to receive 730 test kits containing to tests each, but that was changed to only half that number of kits which were to be available for pick up on Jan. 1. The kits were divided in half so each staff member was able to pick up one test kit on Sunday, Jan. 2 to make sure they were safe to come back to school. An open house for teachers was held Jan. 2 to get a test to all teachers who wanted one. Tests not distributed that day were sent to nurses’ offices for teachers when needed.
A Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) decision on the mask mandate, which is slated to end on Jan. 15, was expected to come out early this week, Szymaniak reported.
“We are still not allowed to take a remote day,” he said. “[Riley] said ‘Use a snow day if you can’t staff your school. He is not waiving excess snow days yet.”
Riley is not yet considering the three days lost to a nor’easter in October or the snow on Jan. 7.
“Everybody is putting in as much as they can to keep kids in school, we all know it’s good to keep kids in school,” Szymaniak said. “We did receive a message from a doctor on our call today, saying it’s important to keep kids in school for their own mental health and to make sure we that we keep our hospitals running.”
The doctor said 35 percent of hospital employees have kids and rely on their kids going to school to keep working.
“I can’t say enough for our teachers, who are working real hard, covering and covering, our paras who are covering – everybody’s picking up,” Szymaniak said. Coworkers are picking up the slack in all departments from cafeterias to the principals’ offices, he said.
School Committee member Dawn Byers said that cooperative effort was appreciated, but that she was concerned about a breaking point.
“When do you not have enough coverage to keep students learning and safety?” she asked.
“It’s building-specific,” Szymaniak said. “I think [at the] high school, we can utilize spaces better, If I lose four fourth-grade classes at Indian Head I don’t know if I have coverage.”
“At this time we have not had to combine classes or groups of students in order [to have] coverage,” Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said. “At some schools we’ve had to cancel meetings that were planned because the people who were supposed to be in the meetings were out covering somewhere else.”
School Committee member Fred Small, attending remotely by phone, asked if the district has been able to get substitute teachers.
“It’s a major problem,” both Szymaniak and Ferro said.
“We do not have subs, and some of the college students who came back to sub, four of them currently have COVID,” Ferro added. “So our small force is finding difficulty.”
The district has a dozen dedicated substitute teachers who are working every single day, Ferro said.
“We have some funds set aside for building subs, but we don’t have the people in order to do it,” he said.
Transportation, due to a lack of bus drivers, is an issue as well, according to Szymaniak.
“I don’t see light yet in that busing issue,” he said.
Social distancing is back for lunchtime, as well.
Schools that can distance students at six feet are doing so for lunches and, when not eating, students must wear masks at lunchtime. Middle schools are using extra tables in a zig-zag pattern.
But a problem is evident at the high school where cafeteria tables are round. Last year, according to Ferro, some extra desks were used for distancing students at lunch, right now they are trying to work out where to put desks for that purpose if they are able to obtain them.