By Dakota Antelman, Managing Editor
WESTBOROUGH – Westborough Schools superintendent Amber Bock outlined school reopening plans at a meeting with the School Committee, Aug. 17.
The meeting also saw school officials clarify previous Community Advocate reporting that had inadvertently misrepresented a vote by the Board of Health earlier this month.
Westborough students and staff will be required to wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 through Sept. 17. At that point, school officials will consult with the Board of Health to determine whether the district should move to a more flexible masking protocol.
Following Department of Public Health (DPH) guidance, that protocol would keep mask requirements in place for students in grades PreK through sixth grade. Mask requirements would also remain in place for all unvaccinated staff, students and visitors in other grades, except for those with medical conditions or behavioral needs.
Masks would be optional for those in grades seven and above.
In the event that the district and the Board of Health opt to continue universal masking beyond Sept. 17, School Committee Chair Kristen Vincent emphasized that the district will set new benchmarks to potentially still move to flexible masking in the future.
“We’re not making decisions now for the entire school year,” she said.
Bock had discussed masking and reopening at a meeting with the Board of Health on Aug. 10. A Community Advocate article published online on Aug. 16 incorrectly stated that the Board of Health had approved a recommendation that Westborough students and teachers in Pre-K through sixth grade classrooms wear masks.
That was a reporting error.
While the topic was discussed, the Board of Health’s vote did not formalize that recommendation.
“That was not what the superintendent was recommending at the Board of Health meeting and that is not the guidance that we received from the Board of Health,” Vincent said at the Aug. 17 School Committee meeting.
“It was part of our discussion in terms of we hope to have some flexible guidance if we have good numbers or we hope that those who are vaccinated can have times where they’re wearing their mask in school less,” she continued. “But that was not a decision that we came from.”
There will be no flexible masking until after Sept. 17. Such flexible masking would then only happen if the Board of Health approves it at that point.
“We did recommend the adoption to the Department of Public Health’s guidelines which will allow for flexible masking, but not until after we receive Board of Health approval and also until we move through the first three weeks,” Bock said of the discussions with the Board of Health.
Outside of masking, Bock explained that a number of other protocols will be evolving as students enter a third school year impacted by COVID-19.
“Westborough public school classrooms will return to a much more normal set-up,” she said, noting that students will be able to resume a more typical style of group work when applicable, among other things.
Assigned seating will continue in classrooms and at lunch to aid in contact tracing. This requirement will no longer be in place on busses, however.
The district will continue its air filtration, sanitization and hand hygiene protocols while also maintaining physical distancing when possible.
Schools will implement a new testing option, moving away from pool testing programs that were popular in some area districts last year.
A new “test and stay” model will allow for rapid testing of asymptomatic close contacts via a shallow nasal swab administered by school nurses with parent permission. These close contacts would be tested daily over a seven day period to monitor for COVID-19.
“When your numbers are so low, the effectiveness of pool testing is negligible,” Bock said.
The district is looking to resume in person events, such as concerts and other gatherings.
Likewise, it is anticipating a full return of athletics activities.
Masking will be required for students in music classes playing instruments indoors. This requirement will be waived, however, for students playing outdoors.
Remote learning is not an option this year, as dictated by state guidance.
High School students, meanwhile, will see their normal lunch schedules resume after disruption last year.
The School Committee approved these plans, greenlighting a document to be shared with the community on Aug. 19 that details answers to frequently asked questions regarding reopening.
Unanimous in their decision, School Committee officials noted the gravity of this return to school planning.
“I don’t want anyone to think that we’re making this decision lightly,” school committee member Lisa Edinberg noted.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Reporting published on Aug. 16 that erroneously misstated an aspect of the Board of Health’s Aug. 6 recommendation on the return to school in Westborough has been corrected as it appears online. The print edition containing that article had already been finalized and sent to press by the time this error was noted, however. The Community Advocate will print a correction in its next edition on Aug. 27 to ensure print readers are aware of this error. The Community Advocate regrets confusion caused by this error.