NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The public schools may continue in remote learning for some time depending on the rate of positive tests for COVID-19.
The School Committee voted at its December meeting to anticipate a potential rise in cases because of holiday gatherings and close the school buildings until Tuesday, Jan. 19, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
But with the seven-day average positive test rate now more than 3 percent that return date may not be possible.
"We have to kind of wait and see what is going to be the outcome of both Christmas and New Year's Eve," Superintendent Barbara Malkas told the committee on Tuesday. "And really I don't believe the data that we're looking at in that part has really captured all of that at this point."
The school district's memorandum of understanding with the teachers union set a benchmark of a 3 percent average positive rate at which time the schools would revert to remote. The average rate is for not only North Adams, but for the 14 other communities that send staff and students to the city's schools.
North Adams was at 1.12 percent as of Nov. 27; on Jan. 5, it was 3.43 percent. The average for the 15 communities as of last week was 4.19 percent.
The district also looks at community spread, particularly if there are cases within the schools. School Nurse Leader Lauren Gage confirmed that there are now multiple exposures with at least one case or exposure at every school in the district.
"So we would have had to enter into remote learning anyway, regardless of the vote that we had taken to kind of be proactive to get our families prepared for that possibility," Malkas said.
The numbers, she noted, were from last week's public health data and will not contain the full effect of holiday gatherings. Halloween and Thanksgiving had created a surge in cases that has not yet abated and prompted the decision to go remote after the winter break as a way to quarantine before reopening the buildings.
"I think we'll have to wait and see what the data reveals for this week when it gets released on Thursday night," Malkas said. "I know that it was reported in the news today that there were 92 cases in Berkshire County, and that indicates that we have new cases but where they're distributed to, we won't know until Thursday.
"So remote learning may have to continue, particularly if we get any new positives and miscarriages notified of new positives within this week, those students particularly may not be able to return. But, but if the benchmarks begin to level off or lower, we could then return to the hybrid model."
Whether or not the district will have to stay remote will be determined by metrics at this point, she said, and access to the vaccine for the educational system is not expected for weeks or months.
"We are expecting that we will be able to vaccinate educators, probably sometime during February, is what we're hoping for," Malkas said. "Although with now reports of limited volume of vaccine being available it might be actually early March, before we're able to launch it."
The governor's office and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have not been clear on when and how it will happen. Vaccinations began last month for health-care workers — Gage got her first shot and is scheduled for her second — and emergency and first-responders will begin next week.
The nursing staff has been going through immunization records to ensure all students had gotten their flu vaccinations, as required by that state, when they were going for wellness and office visits. The original deadline to complete the vaccinations was Dec. 31 but the state has extended that.
Malks had discussed basketball with Principal Timothy Callahan and Athletic Director David Racette, and said she and Callahan were "very, very apprehensive about the prospect of basketball for competitive play."
The issue is not only close proximity within the school but also the need to travel from school to school. She said the superintendent of Central Berkshire Regional had told her that a testing regimen had been put in place for Wahconah.
"The only way we would feel comfortable endorsing the prospect of basketball season, or we're trying to have even a shortened season now for basketball, would be if we were going to implement a testing protocol," Malkas said.
The cost for tests and testing can range from $35 to $55 through the Broad Institute but averages $100 or from outside vendors. For 55 student-athletes being testing every week as well as the requisite personal protective equipment would cost and estimated $16,000.
This was not on the agenda but brought up through the superintendent's report and Malkas said they should not get to deep into until it could be made an action item at a next meeting. Mayor Thomas Bernard said a special meeting would likely be hold on the subject prior to February's regular meeting.
In other business, the School Committee:
• Accepted to two gifts for Drury High School from the family of former teacher Frances Merrigan and the estate of John "Jack" and Joyce Brooks.
• Welcomed Emma Bergeron, a sophomore and president of the Student Council, as the 2020-2021 School Committee student representative.
• Reorganized, electing Heather Boulger again as vice chairman and Karen Bond as secretary. Subcommittees for negotiations with professional staff is comprised of Mayor Thomas Bernard, Emily Daunis and Bond and with nonprofessional staff, Boulger, James Holmes and Ian Bergeron; Finance & Facilities subcommittee, Tara Jacobs, Bergeron and Boulger; policy, Bergeron, Bond and Jacobs; and endowment committee, Daunis and Holmes. The first person listed for each subcommittee is chair.
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