NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The school system has seen a number of COVID-19 cases over the last month, which prompted Drury High School to go remote for two weeks as well as some classes at Brayton Elementary.
Superintendent Barbara Malkas told the School Committee on Tuesday that there was a process administrators looked at when considering responses to any exposures to the novel coronavirus.
It seems to be something of a balancing act from her description.
"There have been some presentations through the governor's office about the real need for students to be in schools," Malkas said. "And really, we recognize that, but we also recognize that we are in the middle of a public health pandemic."
School administrators are being kept up to date through the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and information from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"We are in fact making data-informed decisions," she said. "Because this pandemic has become very politicized as an issue, there are many people who have different viewpoints on the issue of the pandemic.
"So we're really trying to be very collaborative with our stakeholders, and at the same time very cognizant of the fact that we need to have good data and to let the data,inform our decision making."
The district negotiated with the Massachusetts Teachers Association to set a 3 percent positivity rate, as recommended by the state, as benchmark. North Adams was at 1.12 percent as of Nov. 27.
The school district also looks at the 14 surrounding communities to averages out the positivity rate. Administrators also look at where the cases are in the community and determine if the schools are related to the rates of infection and whether these are staff or students.
"A single case in a school we probably can isolate that and still keep some students in school, multiple cases in a school, the contact tracing alone is going to impact so many people that we just don't have enough staff to then be able to effectively supervise the students who could remain in school," she said.
For example, contact tracing the multiple positive test results related to Drury meant staff and students would need to isolate. It had to be determined if there would be staff available for in-person instruction.
"We determined that we did not have sufficient staff, after contact tracing," she said. "And so we quarantined the entire student body for the 14 days and went to full remote learning."
The district relies on 14-day data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and on the state website that show the number of cases, the number per 100,000 and the positivity rate, which is the number of positive tests divided by the total tests.
The positivity rate is highly dependent on the number of tests, she noted, pointing out that Hancock has had fewer than five cases total but a positivity rate of 11.76 percent because there were only 17 total tests compared to two positives.
So the school looks at the city's rate, the average rate of the 14 communities, where the new cases are and whether and how they might be impacting the schools. They look at whether it is staff or student, and what schools, grades and transportation might be impacted.
"One of the first questions I usually ask is, are there any siblings? And are they in the same school or a different school, and what is their test status," Malkas said. "Because that's also going to impact whether or not we have a presumptive positive at another grade."
In-person learning has been structured as much as possible to limit interaction between grades and classes. Students have been split into two cohorts, one of which attends school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. All other times are remote.
"We get notified through our school nurse leader from the Public Health Department or by the individual themselves that we have a positive test result that will trigger [contact tracing]," she said. "Our school administration, which includes our principals and our deans, our school nurses at the schools, as well as the school secretaries will take on this responsibility."
That's included hours of reviewing video taken inside the school to determine contact tracing.
"I have to say people have done an amazing job of really identifying those primary contacts and secondary contacts for purposes of notification," Malkas said.
The superintendent said the first line of defense has been self-reporting because it's far more efficient.
"If a parent picks up and calls us, they may have notified us before we hear from public health so that's been a really great means by which we get information," she said, and allows the school to begin contract tracing faster.
The school notifies primary contacts — such as teachers and students within a classroom with the positive case — and secondary contacts who have spent 15 minutes within close contact to or less than 6 feet from the positive individual.
When it comes to communication with the public, individual privacy rights are taken into account. Identifying a school or cohort may be fine but getting more granular — classes, grades or programs especially when a sibling at another school is also involved — may make it easier to identify and individual.
"We have to really consider each of these questions on each individual case that we disclose," Malkas said. "By and large, we are able to identify the school and able to identify the zone and possibly even the cohort. We've not specifically identified grades because many times that has limited it to one family."
The school district is also designating Business Administrator Carrie Burnett as the records access officer. Malkas said she had been told when she came on that the city's administrative officer was the RAO but with the departure of Michael Canales to Stockbridge, it was decided there should be separate RAOs for the city and school district.
"I know I sound like a broken record but I want to say that I think that our educators are rock stars right now," said School Committee member Heather Boulger. "It's an impossible situation and I know that the administration and our principals are doing the best they can."
In other business, Malkas notified the committee that Mayor Thomas Bernard, its chairman, had been recognized with the All-State School Committee Award in Division 6 by the board of directors of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
"This honor recognizes the mayor's efforts as an advocate for the students of North Adams," she said. "Your colleagues who support this award credit the mayor's leadership during this time of crisis and ability to bring the School Committee, school community, and community at large together to address these and other critical issues."
Malkas said the award would have been presented at the canceled annual convention but MASC hopes to reconvene in the spring.
"I want to acknowledge my peers and my colleagues on the School Committee," said Bernard. "This is a team effort and the work that has been done particularly, this year, we've all played a part in so I will accept this award on behalf of all of us."
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