NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The school district will go to fully remote for the two weeks after Christmas break.
The School Committee voted to anticipate a potential rise in COVID-19 cases because of holiday gatherings and close the school buildings from Jan. 4 to Jan. 18 next year. The district will return to hybrid learning on Tuesday, Jan. 19, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
The vote was 5-2, with committee members Emily Daunis and Karen Bond voting against and Ian Bergeron, James Holmes, Tara Jacobs, Heather Boulger and Mayor Thomas Bernard voting in favor.
Families were notified almost immediately on Wednesday night through the district's call system.
Superintendent Barbara Malkas said the concern was related to the rise in COVID-19 cases in the community seen after the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays. With a week and half break coming up and another round of holidays, there is potential for further spread from gatherings.
"The idea is to be proactive and say, rather than having them come into school and then potentially becoming symptomatic from events that they attend to during the holiday break, we're going to be fully remote during that period," she said. "We can still monitor the data, and determine that we're able to open safely on the 19th. Whereas, right now, opening on the fourth, we wouldn't really know who's coming back, who has had exposure and who is not had exposure."
She added that her hope is that "we will have suppressed the numbers sufficiently so that we're able to reopen and get kids back in."
The school district is still feeling the effects of the Thanksgiving holiday, she said, and there's the possibility the schools could end going remote this week if the average positivity rate of North Adams and the surrounding communities break 3 percent.
"We have been looking at our outstanding cases, we are still waiting on eight tests," she said. "Which I know doesn't sound like a lot, but when you are doing the contact tracing for even just two of those cases, it kind of begins to overwhelm our resources."
School Nurse Leader Lauren Gage said the testing system is overloaded and it's taking days to get test results back.
"Part of the reason we may not have seen all of the cases from Thanksgiving yet is that, as I said, the hotlines and the testing centers are inundated," she said. "So tests are sometimes taking three to seven days to come back."
Gage said the incubation period to present with symptoms or test positive is two to 14 days after exposure. So those tested over the past weekend or earlier in the week could be positive when they get their results this week.
"There's no way around it, there will be plans to travel," she said of the upcoming holidays. "And I am extremely, heavily reliant on family communication for my contact tracing and for notification of exposure. I do coordinate with the public health nurses but they also rely on family communication.
"I don't think it's prudent to expect to be able to reach every family member and student and ask about their winter break."
Bond wasn't convinced that deciding this far out to go remote in January would solve anything. If the positivity rate went above 3 percent, the school district would automatically revert to remote anyways, she noted.
"It's not going to prevent community spread, correct, so if people travel and they mix, and they come back to school, we're not going to bring that number down from 3 percent if we reach it," she said. "I just don't see how planning now for remote helps ... I don't want people to get the impression that kids will come back from school and give it to each other. I think everyone's done a great job. I think the transmission in school is been minimal."
Holmes asked if community cases were on the rise, why wasn't the school system going remote now? Gage said North Adams right now is about 1.2 percent for positivity rate.
"It really is a day-to-day decision, and if at any point we either do not have the staff to support our students that are in school, which is not the case at the moment, or if it gets to a point where it's no longer safe to be in school, then we will opt for remote learning," Gage said. "But right now, all of the restrictions that we put in place, we're not seeing transmission in schools."
The district has been forced to revert to remote in a few cases related to exposures outside of school. Drury was remote for a couple weeks and the some classrooms in the elementary schools were temporarily remote. The decisions to go remote are based not just on cases but whether there was enough staff able to be in the buildings.
Daunis expressed concern over families who are in the hybrid program now having to keep children home, noting it could affect child care. "How does it not just put us in the same position two weeks later?" she asked.
"The holidays are generally when people gather anyway, children coming home from college, there's a lot more sources of spread over this winter break than we would usually see in our community," Gage said. "So, I think that's why it's safe to have that two weeks of isolation afterwards."
Malkas said she and Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Roberts-Morandi had met with the teachers' union co-presidents who indicated they were in favor of the two-week remote period and felt it was representative of their members' request.
"They frankly are anxious, I guess that's the best word for it," she said. "There's a high degree of anxiety about the levels of contagion that they're seeing nationwide, let alone within the commonwealth, as well as locally."
Malkas had brought the option to the School Committee on Wednesday because it fell outside the memorandum of understanding with the North Adams Teachers Association so required executive action.
Boulger thought they were being proactive and prudent but wondered if it was possible to do schools rather than the entire district since the high school wouldn't have the child care concerns of that the elementary schools would cause.
"That really is up to the School Committee," Malkas said. "I would say that right now, we are seeing a number of cases that impact every school in our district."
Gage confirmed that the tests — down to seven because she got email during the meeting stating one was negative — were spread across the entire district.
"I will say we've been open since September, and I'm very proud of the way that the team has handled this and kept kids in school as much as possible, and transmission doesn't happen necessarily within the school," she said. "We said that it's associated with community events."