WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Wednesday approved a policy requiring that students who travel outside Massachusetts for more than 24 hours will be required to test for COVID-19 and quarantine before returning to the classroom.
By a vote of 6-1, the committee OKed a policy for the district developed in consultation with local physicians, the district's union and local boards of health.
"Speaking as the leader of the district, I'm trying to keep my vision focused solely on the big prize, which is threefold: getting students back in, keeping students in and keeping our students, their families, our staff and the community safe," Superintendent Jason McCandless said in presenting the proposal to the committee.
McCandless said the policy he drafted was based on language from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Under the new rule, the district will require three things from families who travel outside the commonwealth for more than 24 hours before their children can return to in-person learning: a negative PCR test taken five days or later after returning to Massachusetts; a seven-day quarantine period; and no symptoms of COVID-19.
Before voting, the committee discussed the proposed policy for more than an hour with much of the conversation focusing on how enforceable such a policy would be.
"We want our staff, we want our families who may be hesitant about returning to school to know we are serious about safety and keeping our communities safe," McCandless said. "I am not going to be collecting folks' Instagram or Facebook feeds from over the [upcoming April vacation], looking for folks who are ‘flouting' this policy.
"It really, in its most basic sense, serves as a reminder to families and staff and all of us that we're close [to the end of the pandemic], but we're not there yet. Let's think twice and three times before we do things."
McCandless and District Business Administrator Joe Bergeron, who served as the liaison with local health officials in drafting the policy, said that the district is being as proactive as it can be in the language of the policy. McCandless said at one point that absent some state or federal law, he was not sure the policy could be "enforceable with a capital 'E.'"
That said, having a School Committee-passed policy on the books gives support to building principals and school nurses if and when they encounter families who traveled outside the state and did not observe the quarantine and testing requirement.
"I think the real enforcement mechanism is the principal says, 'Please don't send your child to school,'" McCandless said. "And am I going to encourage a principal to get into a fight with a parent at a front door over that? I don't know. I'd hope in a community that cares about one another that it wouldn't come to that.
"But it's like an awful lot of our policies -- the enforcement is we're asking people to do the right thing, and if for some reason they can't or for some reason they won't, then we say, 'Here is the remedy.' And the remedy is the principal saying, fully supported by the superintendent and … the School Committee: You cannot come to school."
McCandless said school personnel would do their best to avoid a confrontation on the policy but, at some point, he might need to get involved in individual cases.
School Committee members expressed concern that they had heard from members of the community about potential hardships associated with the proposed policy. One argument is that April vacation is the only time some high school seniors will have to visit college campuses and make decisions that will affect the next four years of their lives. Other people worried that students who participated in "Fall 2" interscholastic athletics potentially would be denied a chance to participate in the final week of the season because it comes right after the April recess.
McCandless and Bergeron said that sometimes actions have consequences.
"I fully support the idea of a senior going to visit colleges and prioritizing that and then participating in Mount Greylock on a remote basis for the five school days that might follow," Bergeron said. "I fully support the idea of going to visit a grandparent for possibly the last time before they pass away. I would do that with my kids. We have considered that this year with my kids.
"But I also think the consequence is not one that is overly punitive. It is simply asking that you also prioritize protecting the health and safety of your community over not doing so."
Bergeron also informed the School Committee that the district has had 15 COVID-19 positive results among students in March, and "the most common contact tracing reason goes back to travel of some sort" by a student or an immediate family member.
Curtis Elfenbein said he was in favor of the policy though indicated that he fears it may be ignored, pointing out that the district's daily health screeners are not always completed honestly by families.
Elfenbein said that given the rising COVID-19 numbers in the county and particularly in the school age population, he is particularly frustrated by a state mandate that elementary schools return to full in-person instruction on April 5. And, on the subject of the policy question before the committee, he called on his colleagues to consider an equity dimension that might not immediately be obvious.
"Families of means are more likely to travel during the break," Elfenbein said. "Students of families living below the poverty level, which is a substantial portion of our student population, don't have the means to make that decision by and large, yet they will share an equal share of the risk when all students return to the building."
Steven Miller suggested that the district make post-travel testing and quarantine a "guideline" instead of a policy. And he later suggested that the policy be amended to require testing and quarantines only for students of families who travel by plane. A couple of times, he brought up the idea that trips to visit family Bennington, Vt., or New Lebanon, N.Y., should not trigger the policy, and they likely wouldn't given that it only kicks in for trips of longer than 24 hours.
No one expressed an interest in seconding a motion to amend the policy to specify air travel.
"I'm not comfortable amending it because then you would have a laundry list of variables," Michelle Johnson said. "Could you drive to Florida? Could you drive to another hot spot? I know I've driven to Florida. It wasn't pleasant, but I did it."
Miller was the lone member of the committee to vote against the travel policy, which is intended to be temporary and will be pulled from the district's policy book when the School Committee decides it no longer is necessary.
Much less discussion was needed before the committee voted unanimously to approve a second pandemic-related policy. Effective immediately, all students, including home schoolers, will be required to participate in the district's COVID-19 pool testing program in order to participate in any in-person, after school extra-curricular activities.
McCandless told the School Committee that about 80 percent of the student population is participating in the pool testing program, and that building principals will be reaching out to families who have opted out to ask them to reconsider the decision.
As for the post-travel testing and quarantine policy, McCandless said he understood it will have negative consequences for some families, but it is important for the health of the community to accept those consequences.
"I say all of that with the utmost respect because, in some ways, this looks and feels like overreach," McCandless said. "But, again, being completely focused on the fact that we want and need to get school in person, full-time up and running for the real good of kids, I don't feel like this is asking too much of some individual families.
"For the good of the community, we're asking you to abide by these rules. And if you do have travel plans and can't break them or won't break them, this is the tradeoff the school community is asking."