Westborough schools roll out staff testing, contend with COVID-19 case surge

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By Dakota Antelman and Laura Hayes

WESTBOROUGH – Westborough Schools Superintendent Amber Bock recently celebrated the district’s implementation of state-supported benchmark COVID-19 testing for faculty members returning from holiday break.

She then cautioned, though, that “the next three weeks are going to be bumpy.”

Testing rollout went smoothly, Superintendent says

Classes resumed on Monday as the number of daily coronavirus cases has continued to rise locally and throughout the country. 

Westborough set a record for weekly case counts at the end of December. Massachusetts as a whole, likewise, has seen its total case rate soar.

State officials took action last week, distributing rapid COVID-19 tests to districts in an attempt to blunt further spread of the virus moving out of the holiday break. Westborough then distributed those tests to individual staff members. 

“It was kind of nice to get a benchmark,” Bock said at a School Committee meeting on Jan. 5.

The timeline to distribute tests was tight with some issues reported elsewhere in the state.

In Westborough, though, Bock said things went well.

“We were able to implement that really smoothly,” she said, crediting her team that helped with that rollout.

“I felt good about how we were able to pull that together quickly,” she added.

Outside of testing, the Westborough Board of Health discussed during a meeting on Jan. 3 other measures the schools have taken. 

Board member Melissa Mahr said the board received many emails, including concerns about the isolation period for individuals with COVID-19. 

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Department of Public Health now require a five-day isolation period, following newly updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I know there’s a lot of concern with parents about this, especially with lunch and masks having to come off at lunch and mask breaks,” Mahr said. “So, we literally will have a child going day six into school after having COVID and taking their masks off for lunch or children who have been exposed and taking their masks off for lunch.”

Director of Public Health Jennifer Sullivan said she talked with Bock, who said principals were working to increase lunch distancing when feasible, though the options vary based on available space. Teachers are spacing students during snack and reimplementing procedures from last year that designate spots for students. 

Additionally, principals are making reminder announcements, including before lunch. Schools are using air purifiers in the classrooms and staff members encourage students and faculty to stay home if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, Sullivan said.

“They are providing more space now,” Sullivan said. “They’ve opened up more areas for lunchtime. I believe they’re doing the best they can, and they’re actually going above and beyond because it’s not a guidance of yet. They are being proactive.” 

District documents spike in COVID-19 cases

Bock also addressed the district’s efforts, adding that schools are working to preserve outdoor breaks for students even as colder weather rolls in. 

In her presentation, she then detailed specific COVID-19 case data, confirming an increase in cases that she said the district anticipated as it moved through the holiday break.

The district noted 100 such cases over the break, she said. 

It documented an additional 144 cases between Jan. 3 and Jan. 5.

“Certainly those numbers follow the national issue of how quickly the Omicron virus has kind of [been] picking up,” she said, noting the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Bock said the “vast majority” of these cases have not involved individuals who had recently been in school.

Many tested positive over the vacation, she said, and are just notifying school officials this week.

Additionally, a backlog in tests leading into break did further impact the volume of cases seen during that week, she said.

“Those are students that have been home sick and now parents are calling and reporting that they’ve kept them home and that their COVID test has come through and that they’re positive,” Bock said of this week’s cases.

She elaborated, providing specific data from the high school. 

There were 12 documented cases there on Jan. 5. Of those, either three or four were among individuals actually in the school building that day who were identified after they developed symptoms, Bock said.

The remaining cases were documented as call-ins from parents.

Bock further noted that a “vast majority” of cases are breakthrough cases among vaccinated individuals. 

As of Jan. 5, she said, 21 of the 144 documented cases this week were among teachers. 

“I think everybody in the industry believes that the next three weeks are going to be bumpy, that they’re going to be stressful, that there’s a little unknown in terms of how many cases we’ll see or whether they’ll level out,” she said of the outlook from here.

Superintendent to work on mask distribution plan

School Committee members spoke following Bock’s presentation on Jan. 5 about the efficacy of different types of face masks in curtailing the spread of COVID-19, among other things.

Ultimately, Bock said she would look into opportunities to make it easier for students to access higher quality masks during their school day. 

“I have some work to do on that,” she said, noting that the district did have roughly 20,000 such masks. 

Staff currently have the opportunity to access these masks. Students have access to surgical masks if they need one. But Bock said a process could potentially be developed to also make higher quality masks available to students.

Mandatory masking to remain in place at least through Feb. 2 

The School Committee voted last month to act on a waiver allowing it to transition to a flexible masking model at Westborough High School and Gibbons Middle School. 

Flexible masking was in effect before schools transitioned back to a mandatory model prior to the holiday break. 

The School Committee’s initial vote on Dec. 1 had penciled in a return to flexible masking on Jan. 10. 

With this COVID-19 surge continuing, and after the Westborough Board of Health recently voted to mandate masks in public spaces throughout town, however, the district won’t be returning to flexible masking until at least Feb. 2. 

“We’ll have more data to see if this is just the trend now – if it will trend down,” School Committee Chair Kristen Vincent said. “That should give us a reasonable picture of when we might resume flexible masking again at the middle school and the high school.”

She noted that Feb. 2 would fall after a planned Board of Health meeting, which she said she anticipates could generate some guidelines to help inform School Committee decision making. 

Superintendent thanks staff

Bock commended the contributions of district staff members in recent weeks, saying that the first three days of school following the recent holiday break “looked really good for kids.” 

She acknowledged that the transition back to classes has been stressful for staff members, and she thanked them for their work. 

Moving forward, she said, students and families should continue to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 especially as those doing contact tracing for the district feel a heavy burden with the current volume of cases.

“That’s probably the single best tool that limits contact tracing,” she said

“We also know that for many people it’s very mild symptoms and therefore it’s a hard call for people,” she added, though. “I don’t think that people are in any way deliberately ignoring that and not being responsible.”

“We’re trying to make people aware,” Bock continued. “I think people are being very diligent. And we just have to manage where we are.” 

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