By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter
SOUTHBOROUGH – An “outbreak” of COVID-19 recently prompted 23 individual cases in fifth grade classes at Margaret A. Neary School over two weeks, Southborough Public Schools officials said during a Nov. 8 School Committee meeting.
Superintendent Greg Martineau said it was the first significant cluster of cases in the district since the start of the pandemic.
“We saw cases here and there across our 10 schools, but this was the first true outbreak, for lack of a better word, or cluster that we’ve experienced as a district,” Martineau said.
District grapples with cluster
The district was notified of the first of these cases on Oct. 25. That student had been both symptomatic and tested positive on Oct. 24.
Southborough began contact tracing for both in-school and out of school close contacts. Two students were identified as testing positive through the contact tracing. A third was home with coronavirus symptoms while waiting for their test results.
“At this point in time, when we had the two positives that were close contacts, we decided to consider the whole class a close contact,” Director of Wellness Mary Ellen Duggan said.
The whole class was placed in the district’s test and stay program, which involves daily testing for a period of at least five days to monitor possible infection.
On Oct. 26, there was a fifth grader in a different class was sent home after they had symptoms. That individual later tested positive.
Two other students in that class were home with symptoms and later tested positive. Two others tested positive through test and stay and the class was later considered close contacts.
There were a total of seven positive cases in five of the six fifth grade class rooms on Oct. 30. One of those cases may have been exposed outside of school, Duggan said.
Two students in the remaining classroom tested positive on Nov. 2.
The district’s Medical Advisory Team reviewed the data and came up with a plan on Oct. 31. That included providing an extra pool testing session for all fifth graders on Nov. 1, moving desks in rows three feet apart and separating seats in lunch rooms by six feet. The plan also called to review protocols with staff and students.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education allowed all fifth-grade students to go remote through Nov. 8.
Duggan reported a total of 11 cases of possible in-school transmission and three cases of probable in-school transmission.
“A lot of the students were symptomatic and at school,” she said. “We just really need to send home that message that it’s really important, even with mild symptoms to stay home.”
For a majority of the students, their main symptom was a headache. She said others said their eyes stung and hurt.
“My daughter, I’ll just start off by saying, was one of the 23 who was a positive case,” said School Committee member Jennifer Primack. “So, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this whole situation.”
She asked if it was most likely that the virus spread during lunch.
“Snack and lunch were the two areas where we really, I think, identified where we think most of the concern was,” Martineau said.
It was a “perfect storm,” Duggan said, because snack is held outside when the weather is nice. When it rains, though, as it did frequently during this surge, both snack and recess time takes place inside.
Masking remains an important mitigation measure, Martineau said.
“That was something that we identified as an area for improvement,” Martineau said.
Moving forward, Duggan said the Medical Advisory Team decided that if more than one of the close contacts tests positive on the first day of test and stay, the whole class will be considered close contacts and tested. In those cases, students will be spaced six feet apart, masks will be strictly enforced and group work will be limited.